Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 23 June 2012

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I was already braking before I realised that it was Tom standing by the side of the road with his thumb out. Tom loves me. He got in and leant across and wordlessly clasped me to his bosom. He’s one of those small guys whom God made small because He is a compassionate God and He wanted to limit the damage. Small but hard, Tom is, and with huge hands. In a clinch he feels as if he’s made of steel plate. He stank of Stella. His stubbly chin on my neck felt like 80 grain sandpaper. ‘Where to, chief?’ I said.

He was hitchhiking over to his ex-wife’s new place to see her and the kids and give them all a treat on Father’s Day, he said virtuously. Maybe he’d do a bit of tiling in the bathroom while he was there, he added. He was off to a bad start, though, because he’d stayed too long in the pub and was already two hours late for the roast dinner she’d promised.

‘Do I look drunk?’ he said anxiously. ‘The trouble with my ex-wife is that she’s only got to take one look at me and she can tell straight away whether I’m drunk or not. It’s an uncanny gift she has.’ I looked at Tom’s scarlet face, his glazed eyes, his fatuous squint. ‘Just try to remember that bathroom tiles look better with the shiny side up,’ I said.

As we drove, Tom put his feet up on the dashboard and told me his news. He was still with the same girlfriend, he said, and, yes, they were still having their ups and downs. It was a volatile relationship. In fact, he was up before the magistrate at the end of the week, charged with assaulting her. She’d split his lip, and was going on to poke his eyes out, he said, and he was trying to restrain her. And, of course, he was the one who was arrested and charged as usual. He was also charged with criminal damage to a garden gate. She’d chased him out into the garden and he’d whipped the gate off its hinges to use as a shield.

We hadn’t gone half a mile up the road when he wanted to stop and relieve himself. I pulled over into a lay-by and he got out of the car and unzipped himself. From where I sat, it was at eye level. Tom calls it ‘Scarface’ and never wastes an opportunity to show him to me; always inviting me to share his amazement at Scarface’s toughness and resilience, in spite of all the punishment that is inflicted on him one way or another. Tom now leaned back and sagged at the knees to direct the stream well away from his shoes. ‘I think he’s had his day, old Scarface,’ he said sadly. And indeed he wasn’t looking quite his usual self. I nodded concerned agreement.

Of course, we couldn’t drive past the only pub en route without stopping for one, which became two, and by the time we got back in the car Tom’s face was redder, and his squint more fatuous than ever. As we continued our journey, he mentioned that he would probably have to stay the night with his ex-wife because he was under an 8 o’clock curfew.

‘Curfew?’ I said. ‘Imposed for what?’ ‘Same thing,’ he said. ‘I had to restrain my girlfriend the week before as well. She almost killed me. The coppers saved my life. Assault and criminal damage. I got bail and a curfew.’ ‘Was it criminal damage to the garden gate again?’ I said.

The criminal damage was to a television set. Tom claimed he’d thrown it in self-defence. I’ve been in their lounge and seen their television. It’s one of those enormous old pre-flat-screen televisions. Picking it up and throwing it at her must have been like Chief Bromden lifting and throwing that cement wash basin block at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

So you’re on a curfew for assaulting your girlfriend, and now you’ve been arrested for assaulting her again, I said. Tom shook his head in wonder and sadness. ‘I was fighting for my life both times,’ he said. ‘But it wasn’t after 8 o’clock,’ he said, brightening. ‘They can’t do me for that.’

We finally arrived at his ex-wife’s house. He rolled himself a fag for courage. Then stepped out of the car. Before he turned to walk up the path, he said, ‘Do I look drunk to you? She can tell at a glance, this woman can.’ The truth was that Tom was so drunk that she could probably tell he was drunk if they were communicating by lighting hilltop beacons.  ‘Just remember: shiny side up,’ I said.