I remember that I paid him a visit soon after they’d moved in, their first real home together, a house on Sherwood Street. From first impressions the name seemed inappropriate; there were no merry men to be seen, just defeated-looking people returning to the neighbouring terraces at hometime, thin carrier bags swinging from one hand, house keys in the other–a squatter, fatter Lowry painting. It wasn’t the kind of place where I would have wanted to live, and at least one of his friends refused to park his car round there when visiting, but they seemed happy enough.
I’d introduced him to his wife. She was a friend of mine I had met through work, though that didn’t last long once the dating began. The dynamic changed–inevitable, I suppose. I was not the best man at the wedding, something which relieved me. “It’s not so much gaining a sister, more a case of losing a friend,” I would say to people, passing it off as a joke. The ones who didn’t know me well laughed, the ones who did wore more complicated expressions.
Past the front door was a reception room, with a living room beyond and a kitchen beyond that. Everything was laid out in a thin strip: all length, no width. He went into the kitchen and made me a coffee: he lived on coffee then, for all I know he still does. The living room was neutral, beige elevated to an art form, IKEA’s finest all strategically deployed. Everything was the inoffensive colour you opt for when you’re starting out, because having tastes means taking risks, and when you’re starting out risks are something you can’t afford.
There had always been an element of competition between us–I see that now, though I would have denied it then. Who’s the most successful? Who’s got it figured out? Who’s better off? Who does dad like the best? Who’s the happiest? Who’s the winner? On that day, when I visited him, there was no question about the answer. He had a home of his own and a brand new wife. I had only been back in town a few months, was leapfrogging from woman to woman, not sure whether the current one would last or just be the latest in a long unbroken line of errors of judgment. Actually, deep down I knew it was the latter, but I hadn’t begun to admit that to myself.
“What’s this on the coffee table?” I said.
“It’s a Zen garden,” he said from the other room. “It’s for calm.”
I looked down. It was a small wooden tray full of sand with a handful of pebbles and a tiny rake. The sand had been swept into uniform lines, all parallel. I didn’t see anything calming about something so artificial. Maybe it was his self-satisfaction, maybe it was the irritating precision of the arrangement or maybe it was me–envious, judgmental, not well acquainted with stillness, then or ever–but I couldn’t help finding it smug.
I went through to get my coffee, served in a large bland identikit cup.
“It’s a nice sized kitchen.” I said. I meant that it was bigger than I thought it would be, but ‘nice sized’ sounded more complimentary. Besides, the kitchen in my rented house at the time was a frightening place, lots of cupboards I didn’t dare open, full of foodstuffs in varying states of decomposition.
“Thanks. It’s nice to have space. Mum’s taught me how to make a roast dinner.”
“Really?” I said. Another indisputable sign of progress. You wouldn’t have been able to find a roasting tin in my kitchen, or if you could you’d be cleaning it from here until Christmas and you still wouldn’t want food anywhere near it.
“Yes, I piss all over roast dinners now.”
“I can’t see that doing much for the flavour.”
He was always a bit po-faced and he didn’t crack a smile at that. This was the start of his idyllic future, the end of all his mistakes–the mistakes I was still making–and there wasn’t any place for jokes. Jokes were something you did before you got married, before you were successful, a childish thing you put aside. So I thought better of carrying on in that vein: I drank my coffee, I didn’t make any more wisecracks, we talked about football–always a safe alternative to discussing anything significant–and eventually it was time for me to leave.
None of us knew back then that his marriage wouldn’t last. We couldn’t have suspected that a few years later he’d just up and leave for reasons nobody ever got to the bottom of. First he moved in with my father, and then he moved in with some woman he met online, and then that ended and he moved on again. The romantic nomad: a pattern I was all too familiar with. When it all went into meltdown, I would feel like the balance had swung back in my favour, because in those days that mattered to me. “How terrible,” I’d say, and I’d partly mean it, but I’d also be thinking Not so perfect now, are you? But that was all in the future; sitting there looking at his spotless coffee table, scattered with inexpensive objets, it seemed like he had solved all the puzzles. He was at the centre of the maze, and I was near the periphery, struggling with another dead end.
Just before I left, I caught him looking at the Zen garden. While he was in the kitchen I had taken his rake and scratched lines across it–not quite perpendicular to the ones he’d drawn, but at a number of diagonals. The whole thing was a crosshatched mess, random and disorderly. The pebbles had been pushed out of formation and the rake was left discarded on one side, an affront to feng shui. I can’t remember whether he said anything about it, but I like to think that he didn’t. Either way, I knew it would bug him for the rest of the evening, and he knew that I knew that. It was all that I could do.
On the long walk home, I felt something a little like peace.