It was hard to live in the country, and Celia had been there her whole life. After eight children, she remained what people called a handsome woman. Despite aprons, a thickening waist, barge arse and silver stretch marks, all of which George claimed he never noticed, her pale skin was soft and wanton beneath the red satin chemise she always wore when she wanted a bit. After several increasingly indifferent attempts, however, George had once again failed to perform, and had slunk silently from the marital bed while his wife glowered.
As cold floorboards creaked in the pre-dawn light and the door clicked shut, Celia watched the cheval glass in the corner of the room rotate slowly upwards upon its central axis, until it neatly snipped the rosary carefully hung on its shoulder. Sacred beads tumbled, dancing between the boards into dusty oblivion. The rosary had been her mother’s, and family legend went that it had been blessed by Pope Pius himself. Although she did not move, Celia’s blood heated as surely as the perspiration on her exposed and abundant thighs froze. In the kitchen below, she could hear her husband rattling around making tea. The old fool was going to wake Susan’s baby. Normally she did as her late mother had always advised and put up and shut up, but tonight she stepped into her fluffy slippers, grabbed her ruined rosary and pursued her quarry downstairs, intent on continuing the argument George was trying so hard to avoid.
He was a gentle soul who detested confrontation of any kind, but his problem in the small hours was that he had nowhere else to run. It was too early to leave for the fields, even for George, and although he longed for the peace and quiet of the cowsheds, creeping around the farm at three in the morning was likely to get him killed. The last intruder had been horribly castrated by Old Man Blackwood’s bullmastiff, Nelson, and the farmer had given the one before that both barrels in the bollocks himself, before feeding the still twitching pikey to his prize pigs. Celia, of course, was blissfully ignorant of their landlord’s approach to home defence, although her husband knew where all the bodies were buried.
Celia, meanwhile, crept downstairs with exaggerated care, inwardly cursing every crack of the ancient woodwork that echoed like September thunder in the otherwise profound rural silence. She gingerly unlatched the kitchen door, winced as the hinges groaned, and entered the freezing scullery. George, still naked beneath a worn woollen dressing gown, sat with his back to the door, warming himself by the range in a burst black leather armchair with which he refused to part, despite Celia’s constant complaints concerning good taste, interior design and basic hygiene. His pale paunch flowed past the colourless, sack-like material and onto his lap above his frog’s legs and ill-proportioned feet, his bottom half sprouting more coarse, dark hair than his glistening pate would ever see again.
‘Why can’t you drink less and exercise more?’ Celia would moan, but after twelve hours a day on the farm the last thing George felt like doing was more bloody exercise. The door of the range was open, exposing an insipid kindling fire licking slowly around last night’s coal, offering little heat but bathing the room in a dirty muted yellow. An old iron kettle failed to boil on the hotplate above. George was sitting upright, staring into the fire, an unlit fag in his hand. Celia surveyed the back of his greasy square head and her spirit shrivelled. This was the only man she had ever had. Tears of frustration welled.
‘Go on, light it, I dare you,’ she hissed. She did not wait for a response. ‘You would too, you selfish pig, just to spite me,’ she continued, although he had done nothing of the sort. ‘You know I’m a martyr to my sinuses, and little Paul’s already got the asthma, not that you care.’ Paul was the illegitimate child of their eldest, Susan, who had returned home after the baby’s father had failed to do the decent thing. Celia, who had never worked, cheerfully babysat while Susan was on nights. Unusually for her generation and her class, Celia had never smoked either, and had been trying to reform George for years. The recent imposition of a government health warning on the packets, and the accompanying moral panic in the tabloids had, she felt, given credence to her argument.
‘It’s bad for your circulation, too,’ she added.
George had heard it all before. ‘But it’s the only simple pleasure I have left,’ he would usually protest, causing Celia to invariably reply that she supposed she was not, then, enough for him. They both knew the script, but this morning he ignored her with an incendiary indifference.
This did not go down well.
‘I expect that’s why you can’t get it up, little man,’ she said, her voice rising. ‘There’s no blood getting to that flabby old cock. It’s not just for pissing through you know, I have needs, I’m still in my prime. Don’t you smirk at me, you fat bastard. I’ve had offers you know, don’t you think I haven’t.’ Upstairs, a child stirred. Celia moderated her tone, clutching the remains of her rosary with exaggerated piety. ‘But I vowed,’ she continued, keeping her voice low, ‘I bloody vowed on our wedding day, so I did, that I’d take you for better or worse, forsaking all others.’ She paused for effect. There was still no answer forthcoming. ‘Forsaking all others,’ she repeated. ‘And as god is my witness,’ she went on, ‘I’ve been faithful. And for what, for what, you half-cocked bloody farm boy?’
It was a rhetorical question. ‘Eight bloody kids, no car, no money, that’s what,’ she continued, barely pausing before answering herself. George’s wages, topped up with a bit of child support, had barely kept them while they raised a family, although when the subject of money came up George would always gently note that it was love and common sense that brought up children, not a large salary. Susan paid her way, and Celia did what she had always done, and kept house, grateful for the distractions of another baby. It was a large house for just the four of them, the extra space no longer required as the children made their own ways in the world, but Celia kept it organised and clean. They rented it from Blackwood for a steal – he liked George and had always been sweet on Celia – and both knew they’d never get anything better now. George worked in the fields from dawn to dusk, but this never seemed to impress Celia.
There was still no answer, but Celia’s deep rooted preoccupation with the unfairness of a life of permanent penury chewed away at her insides and splashed on her family like acid. All of her kids worried about money. She did not blame the Tories, however, she blamed George.
‘You could have got on,’ she said. ‘You could’ve been a foreman, but oh no, you just couldn’t take the pressure.’ George had always preferred to work with his hands, and had no desire to tell anyone else what to do. Celia was now booming like a bittern, the slumbering Paul forgotten. ‘You’re just so bloody useless.’
George kept it shut, there really was no point arguing. She’d get over herself. She always did.
Celia closed in for the kill. ‘Do you know,’ she whispered, bringing her face close to his, ‘I’ve never once had an orgasm.’ This was true, although she had not been aware of her lack until she started reading Parade. She concluded with her usual flourish: ‘I knew I should have married the Blackwood boy. At least he had some ram in his rod.’
With eyes burning and chest heaving, Celia waited for her apology. When none was immediately forthcoming, she stomped out of the room, heedless of the sound of her exit. Let the bastard deal with the boy if he woke up. Let him make the bloody breakfast. He wouldn’t last five minutes without her. She’d show him.
While his skin grew cold and his limbs stiffened, meanwhile, my Uncle George watched the fire with dry, dilated eyes. As he had frequently predicted, my Aunt Celia had finally been the death of him.