The following short story was recorded for broadcasting by BBC Radio 4 on March 12th, 1992, when Danny Morrison was in the H-Blocks but was then banned by the BBC even though it was not in contravention of the 1988 Broadcasting Ban introduced by Thatcher. In a letter to Danny Morrison, John Wilson, BBC’s controller of editorial policy wrote: “Your short story should never have been accepted, and in the existing circumstances you should forget any encouragement from anywhere in the BBC to write a play or other creative work for entertainment purposes.”
Jim Carlisle pulled on the handbrake and the car gently halted at the edge of the driveway, idling. ‘Did anybody check Tonto?’
‘I did, Dad,’ said Paula, his sixteen-year-old daughter, from behind his shoulder, as she sat forward from the twins. ‘And I tied the patio gate.’
Sarah, Jim’s wife, switched on the radio and hit a pre-set button just to double-check that it was on City Beat that they listened to every morning for traffic reports, the day’s weather and ‘Our Song’. Paula and Sarah always alighted last, usually around five to nine, when they reached Paula’s school where Sarah was the senior caterer.
Presently, they drove out of their quiet village estate and onto the main road for the city. Sarah turned to nine-years-old David and Damien.
‘Did you remember them?’
In unison the twins answered Yes but behind the scenes they quickly used their tongues to dislodge scales of toast from between their teeth before baring their gums to their mother.
‘Look at them!’ she said, with maternal exasperation.
‘David forgot to tell me,’ pleaded Damien, the more timid of the pair.
‘It was your turn!’ insisted David, as he squirmed and winced whilst Sarah loosened her safety belt and used her finger nail to remove the most conspicuous of the crumbs. Jim watched the road and smiled, and the smile glided imperceptibly from observing the charm of his children back to an incident the night before when a boring new neighbour insisted on being introduced to Tonto, their red Setter.
‘What are you thinking?’ asked Sarah.
‘I’m laughing at Jimmy what’s-his-name… Taylor. Did you see his face when Tonto jumped up on him!’
‘I almost died,’ laughed Sarah, as she thought of the mucky paw marks which ran like hoofs up the front of Mr Taylor’s white pullover.
They were caught up behind a familiar old wheezing bus that they often tried to avoid. The bus would bronchitically gasp at every stop and start.
‘I could swear I went to school in that old crock,’ said Jim.
‘Be careful. You’re giving your age away,’ joked Sarah.
‘And yours! I stole your friend’s beret on that bus and you cried because it didn’t belong to you!’
‘I did not! Paula, don’t believe a word of it. Your father’s going senile!’
Jim laughed again, leaned forward, and slightly increased the volume on the radio and everyone gladly fell silent, as if they were sinking into a second sleep. Albinoni’s Adagio, appropriated by City Beat’s breakfast show presenter, Bob Mellows, provided the background music to a listener’s letter which led up to ‘Our Song’, one of the most popular items on the morning programme.
‘Well, listeners,’ Bob began. ‘Today’s letter is about two people whom the tumble of life brought together in the most unlikely of circumstances. We’ll call her Maureen and him Peter and, really, that’s all you need to know about their identities. And it’s Maureen who writes the letter.
‘She says she was nineteen, had chosen a university in a city far away from home – in part to distance herself from her domineering father – and here she shared a house with a number of other girls. It was the end of the autumn term, just coming up to Christmas, when the girls went out on a pub crawl. In one bar they took over a corner where there were two tables, one occupied by three older men who looked fairly stuffy – business types, and the girls recommenced their carousing.
‘Now, this was their party and naturally they resented some of the men attempting to join in with the fun uninvited, the way men, as we know, can insinuate themselves as if of right into the conversations of women. Things came to a head when Jennifer, that’s Maureen’s friend, returning from the ladies and having to negotiate between the tables, made the accusation that one of the men pinched her on the bottom. All hell was about to break loose. Maureen launched a tirade against the three men. The one who was accused swore on his daughter’s life that he hadn’t touched Jennifer. The landlord intervened: he seemed familiar with the men who must have been regulars: but before he had to take sides, Jennifer giggled and said she may have been mistaken. In fact, she later admitted making the incident up for “a bit of a laugh”.’
Jim Carlisle shifted uncomfortably in his seat and experienced a feeling of déjà vu.
‘The row,’ said Bob Mellows, ‘put a dampener on the festivities so Maureen went to the bar and bought three pints which she placed on the table as a peace offering to the men and they all made up. She got to talking to the man Jennifer had accused, who she supposed was about ten or twelve years her senior, and whom we are calling Peter. She was surprised to find him attractive, soft-spoken, kind. He bought all of them a round and they continued chatting. Maureen gave him a run-down on her academic career, her home town, books that she had read, music that she had liked, her views on this and that. He had the face of a listener, she felt very comfortable and he made her laugh a lot, and despite the fact that she saw his wedding ring she admits she found herself flirting a little. Finally, at the end of the night he said goodbye and that it had been very nice speaking to her, he had enjoyed the conversation.’
Jim paled slightly and turned quickly to his wife. She returned a broad, innocent smile. He thought about surreptitiously changing channels but they never changed channels. Driving out in the morning, listening to City Beat, to ‘Our Song’, was part of a routine the seeds of which neither Sarah nor Jim had noticed taking root. The patterns had just sprouted. But Jim, when he reflected deeply, as he was doing now, clearly saw the provenance of all the accumulated routines in his life as stemming from his reconciliation with Sarah many, many years before, his return to the conjugal life, to Paula, then just a child, his work and home, his garden. It had been the right thing to do, to see sense, to come back to earth from the madness of the high wire. But God, he thought, what a beautiful madness those four months had been.
‘Maureen writes that she thought no more about the exchanges in the pub,’ said Bob. ‘She spent Christmas at home, paying respects to her parents, and returned to her rented house in early January in the chaos of the severe freeze of that year. Her train was delayed by frozen points and heavy snow on the tracks and it didn’t arrive at the station until after one in the morning. Passengers were told they could spend the night on the train or in the concourse if they so wished but that no taxis were running.
‘And it was on the station platform that she again met Peter. “You too!” she laughed. Peter had been returning from a business trip and his car, he explained, was parked nearby if she wanted to risk the weather. “Why not!” she said, always ready for a bit of adventure. And besides, as she said earlier, she felt at ease with him even though she had only met him once before and knew only his first name. Peter took her travelling bag and carried it to his car which they had trouble recognising, and after some delay he finally got it started. However, they travelled at a snail’s pace and soon the drifts had entirely blocked the road and it became impossible to drive any farther.’
Jim Carlisle felt needles of sweat prick his pores. There was no doubt about it: this was his story being aired, and yet … yet, because of the anonymity, he was experiencing a vicarious thrill, and not a little excitement that he was being secretly addressed across the ether, after all this time. It suddenly occurred to him: why should Sarah put two and two together? She didn’t know all the facts and he had never revealed his lover’s identity. All that Sarah was aware of was that she had been a student, came from a northern town and had then moved well away from the Carlisles.
Ten years ago he had walked out on Sarah, leaving her bewildered as to why her world, whose equilibrium she had done nothing to upset, should come crashing in. It had been cruel and unfair and Jim had felt guilty the whole while that he had been enjoying himself. But how explain it? How could he ever have told good Sarah, already demoralised by his sudden departure, that she didn’t know how to kiss or make love anymore, excite him or make his heart swell with joy, without completely devastating her? It had been simpler saying that he was just not happy, needed time to work things out, and, no, there wasn’t another woman. That had bought him a few month’s respite until one night he made a telephone call. ‘Hello, love,’ he whispered warmly. When Sarah said hello back she instinctively detected a mental gasp. They engaged in conversation but from that moment she knew he had a lover and that he had phoned the wrong number.
Sarah had begged him to come back. His parents, his friends, his colleagues, all rose up against him. He wasn’t the first married man to stray, he was told a hundred times. The fences could be repaired: he just had to catch himself on. Eventually, when he did return, there had been surprisingly more spice in his and Sarah’s sex life. And, yes, they did fall in love all over again but that left him in love with two women. Then Sarah wanted to know everything – the when and where. Over the next month or so it was to become an obsession. Of course, she hadn’t declared this impediment before he came home, before he burnt his bridges, so he felt somewhat cheated. Jim offered her snippets but even these were extremely painful to recall and they drained him. However, they only fed Sarah’s appetite, didn’t assuage it.
Once, after a great night together, Sarah started on the old refrain and one thing led to another. She screamed hysterically, threw things about, head-butted the door frame, causing herself actual harm, frightening him, demanding to know everything, whilst terrified six-year-old Paula stood in her night dress squealing and wetting herself.
But Jim couldn’t let Sarah get into his soul without betraying the preciousness of his short-lived love affair and he walked out again. When he returned the following afternoon to collect his clothes Sarah ran out to the car to meet him. She enthusiastically declared that she was out of the woods, past the worst. She would never again cast up Jim’s affair. She was sorry for anything she had said or done which had contributed to their marriage hitting the rocks. She told him that she loved him and couldn’t live without him. She told him that she was pregnant.
The twins sat upright in the back seat, facing the car behind which was dropping off school children and whose driver was putting his tongue out at David and Damien.
‘Did you see that!’ said David loudly.
‘Yeh! A different one every morning too,’ replied Damien. They scrambled out and were given their orders for the day. Only when they were safely in the school yard did Jim drive off.
‘Maureen and Peter,’ Bob Mellows was continuing, ‘then decided to abandon their car to the blizzard. Maureen said she thought they weren’t far from her place. But Peter knew the way, once she described a landmark. It made sense to hold on to one another as they struggled through the snow. What was remarkable was that she was not at all afraid. The streets were totally deserted and silent. Lamps glowed like suspended haloes, while the entire sky came down in disordered flocks of fat flakes. They cracked jokes and laughed the whole time, often falling about like two drunken snowmen. After an hour or so they finally reached her house.
‘Her rooms were on the ground floor but none of the other girls had returned from their holidays so the house was empty. And cold. She lit the gas heaters and made two huge mugs of hot black tea laced with the dregs of a brandy bottle. Not once did she ask him about his marriage. There was chemistry at work. She could feel it bubbling okay, and she just didn’t want to introduce reality. And anyway, what is reality? It was these two diverse people whose lives had crossed and whose hearts felt the first stirrings of love.
‘He took the couch: she her bed. The following morning she looked out the window and couldn’t believe her eyes. The snow was licking the window sills and there wasn’t a soul to be seen. And Peter was gone, his bedding left packed neatly on a chair. Maureen felt a pang of loneliness and thought, well, that’s that. About half an hour later she heard the hall door being knocked. When she opened it there was Peter, his arms coming down with groceries. She put on the bacon and eggs and made a big breakfast. After the table was cleared of plates and cutlery she was at the sink and he was looking through her tape collection. He came up behind her, put his arms around her waist, then withdrew them and quickly apologised. She said to him she liked it. So he held her again and that was it. The dishes still hadn’t been washed eight hours later.’
Yes, thought Jim Carlisle, I phoned you Sarah, and said I was stuck in the heavy snow, but was now in a hotel. You said you had been worried sick but that I shouldn’t attempt to make it home until the roads were clear and safe. Then I thanked the shopkeeper and lifted the groceries from the counter. And to do that, to go back to her, I had to work up a dislike for you, Sarah, my childhood sweetheart. It’s funny how all your faults and blemishes were suddenly revealed to me. How ugly you had become. I hated you. And I pitied you.
‘Maureen and Peter,’ Bill Mellows said, ‘then began secretly seeing each other. In fact, he was introduced to her friends as Peter, though, as I said, that wasn’t his real name. Soon Peter was telling her that he wasn’t happy at home, that he was leaving his wife. And although Maureen says that she didn’t encourage him, she was secretly pleased when he moved out and began seeing more of her. But then problems arose because ‘the future’ came on to the agenda. Until then ‘the future’ had been, “See you in such-and-such restaurant on Thursday night, love,” or, “Are you free at the minute, can I call around?”
‘Maureen had fallen behind badly in her studies and had become quite defensive with her friends, especially when they bantered her about the age difference between her and Peter. The two lovers had a few disagreements but never any major arguments and both knew that they were made for one another and could live a happy life together. But everything conspired against them.
‘By this stage Peter’s wife knew he was seeing someone else and a tug-of-love had started. Maureen watched helplessly as Peter’s nerves frayed. Their conversation veered between them running away together to them forgetting each other. Eventually Maureen was the one to call it off. But then Peter would come back for a night and she would succumb but next morning she would call it off again. Those were the worst days and nights of her life, she says.
‘For six weeks Peter stayed away from her and he was wretched. She felt physically sick. Her friends told her to pull herself together. Then Peter showed up out of the blue and said he was ready to run away and build the new life together they had dreamed about. Outwardly, Maureen was joyous but something deep inside told her it was impossible, call it women’s intuition or what you will. Peter went home to collect his bags but returned empty-handed. He sat on the sofa with his head in his hands. He told Maureen that they had been defeated, the battle was lost, he had to go back, the pressure was too great, he didn’t know if he were sane or mad. They held each other close. Peter didn’t leave immediately. He stayed the night. And this is the record she wants played, after which I’ll finish Maureen’s letter.’
A lump rose in Jim Carlisle’s throat as the opening bars on the piano introduced the song that he had heard for the first time in Maureen’s house. Each line was like a spade striking buried treasure in his heart and he silently whispered the words:
I know it’s late
I know you’re weary
I know your plans don’t include me
Still, here we are
Both of us lonely
Longing for shelter
From all that we see…
We got tonite
Who needs tomorrow
We got tonite
Why don’t you stay…
‘Bob Seger!’ exclaimed Paula. ‘Bob Seger! What a great song!’
Her shout brought Jim out of his reverie – a reverie which Sarah had slowly noticed as she turned over the story in her mind, wondering, doubting, re-considering, suspecting.
‘Turn it up, Dad, please. I love this song!’
‘It’s loud enough as it is,’ said Sarah, tetchily. Jim had just pulled the car up at her school. She opened the door and Jim leaned forward and kissed her.
‘Mom, can’t we wait to hear the last part of the letter,’ pleaded Paula. ‘It’ll only take a minute.’
‘We haven’t got time. Besides, your father can hear it,’ she said, stepping out of the car. Jim looked at her. She couldn’t even manage a cynical smile. She was in pieces.
Sometimes, he would step out of the car and walk her to the gate and give her a second kiss. Sarah loved the ostentation of this romantic gesture and Jim had liked pleasing her.
Sarah walked with a heavy heart towards the school gates with Paula, wondering would Jim’s conceit and curiosity, his self-indulgence, outweigh his concern for her.
She heard the driver’s door open and Jim calling her name, calling on her to wait.
He came up to his daughter and wife, lifted the beret from Paula’s head and placed it on Sarah’s, making it neat, then kissed her on her ‘schoolgirl’ lips.
Bob Mellows’ voice had the Carlisle’s car to itself.
‘Well, Peter, did go back to his wife. He took a big breath and told her that he was deeply sorry for all the pain he had caused, and that the days ahead would be very, very difficult. He told her he loved her but that he loved Maureen more and couldn’t live without her.
‘The first year for Maureen and Peter was a real struggle. They had nothing but their devotion to each other – which, really, when you think about it, is everything – and a determination that they would survive. They had major problems with her parents who at first ridiculed and refused to accept Peter, accusing him of ruining their daughter’s life and education.
‘But the good thing is that they survived. They moved away. Peter re-established himself in business. Maureen returned after a two-year break to university and finished her degree and now they have a child of their own. And Maureen just wants to thank Peter for staying not just that night, but every night.’