I’m wiping Mrs. Carleton’s backside when she tells me she has a secret. ‘You won’t believe it,’ she says. I help her to stand, then flush the loo.
Every part of Mrs. Carleton is failing. I imagine her bones – her hips and pelvis, all those joints that keep a person together – crumbling to nothing, and I suppose it won’t be long until she’s just that: nothing. I place her with care in her ergonomic armchair. Before I started this job, I thought only pens were ergonomic. Turns out lots of things are ergonomic. The walls of her living room are cream coloured. There are framed pictures of her family on the cabinet, and on the mantlepiece above the electric fire. I wonder how often they visit her; I’ve never seen them, but I suppose they know when I’m here, when to avoid me. I wouldn’t want to walk in on someone wiping Mum’s arse.
‘Sit down a minute,’ she says. ‘You don’t have to rush off straight away.’ I can hear the cistern filling up in the loo. I’m sure it’s faulty. I take a seat on the settee. ‘You’ve heard of Elvis?’
‘Elvis Presley? Yeah, course.’
‘He’s my baby daddy.’ I hadn’t expected a phrase like ‘baby daddy’ to come out of Mrs. Carlton’s mouth. A lively smile across her face. ‘My son Jeremy. Conceived, Las Vegas, Nevada.’ She breaks into one of her coughing fits. I’m up, trying to help her, but there’s not much I can do. I fetch a glass of water from the kitchen. She leaves it on the coffee table by her ergonomic armchair. ‘I’ve told him to come around tomorrow morning, about eight, so you can make up your mind.’
‘Make up my mind?’
‘About the resemblance,’ she says, her voice croaky. ‘He was very handsome.’
I take off my Sketchers and slump in front of the tele. I watch the regional news. More heatwave coverage, an item about our bid to be named the next city of culture, then sports. Popping holes into the lid of my microwavable lasagne, I wonder if I should say something to my manager about Mrs. Carleton. And say what? That she was pulling my leg? She got a bit confused and thought she’d laid Elvis?
Brushing my teeth later on, her lively smile comes back to me. I imagine her laughing at me now, alone in her creamy living room, surrounded by pictures of family she rarely sees.
Jeremy is there when I arrive. He stands when I come in. Jeremy is tall, dark, and - there’s no better word for it - handsome. I say good morning to mother and son, feeling terribly formal, old-fashioned, and stilted. I don’t look at her in case she’s smiling at me. In the back of my mind, I try to work out the age gap between Jeremy and me.
‘I’m the son.’ He shakes my hand. ‘Thanks for all this.’
‘Oh, really,’ I say. ‘It’s nothing.’
‘It is her job, don’t feel too sorry for her.’
We ignore her comment. I wonder if this eye contact between us – Jeremy and me – means anything. His suit is black. He’s an executive? Taking care of business.
‘I don’t know how you can wear something like that in this heat,’ I say.
‘Scorcher, isn’t it?’
When I say nothing else, Jeremy says he must be going, and before I know it, he’s out the door.
‘He stayed to see you. I told him you were very beautiful and I’m not sure he believed me, so I told him to see for himself this morning.’
‘You’re right,’ I say, almost to myself, feeling heady. ‘He does have a look of Elvis.’
There is Tupelo, Mississippi. But there is another Tupelo, somewhere in the Pacific ocean.
On the second Tupelo, it’s Elvis’ sixty-fifth birthday. He lies back in his deck chair, on the beach, and buries his toes into the warm sand. This Tupelo sun sets, so does the sun over Tupelo, Mississippi. They’re red and round and have a pleasing curve to them, he thinks, as his mind wanders from the island to linger over the ocean.
He shuts those tired eyes, lolls his head onto its side, so it touches the chair’s soft material, and he slowly brings to mind that teenage truck, which served him well on the interstate – which interstate? Decades gone. He feels well beaten, and now well rested.
He gets up and crosses Tupelo. In the house on the west side of the island, he finds a white Gibson with a faux-marble scratchboard. He pulls the instrument down from the wall. It’s heavy. In a brief moment of panic, he wonders if he’ll remember the chords.
The Unexploded Bomb
Since the age of eleven, I have listened to Hancock’s Half Hour before bed. It’s reached the point where I can only sleep if I’ve listened to an episode. I have a playlist of the stories that send me to sleep the fastest. I have another playlist that seems to encourage dreaming. I see sometimes on social media that lucid dreaming, that sort of thing, is popular. I don’t go in for all that. If I find myself in Hancock’s flat, I stay perfectly still. I have no control over my movement, and I simply exist in his world for the night. The half-hour stretches to morning. I use ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’ most often. This is the first episode I heard on cassette, aged eleven, just before Dad went away. It’s the one I return to on Sunday nights, when Monday looms.
This is going through my head as we leave the taxi. I pay the driver, then follow Felicity to her front door. Felicity says she’ll send me the money for her half of the taxi, but I tell her don’t worry about it, just buy me a drink next time. ‘So, there’ll be a next time?’ She shows me into her home, a terrace house ten minutes from Market Street. ‘Drink?’ She boils the kettle. Her kitchen has just about enough room for said kettle, a fridge, and four hobs. She pours milk first, which is the way I make my tea at home. ‘Sugar?’ No, thanks. She hands me a TARDIS mug. It has an awkward novelty handle. We sit in the living room. The house is how I’d imagined it when she’d described it at the pub. We stay on the sofa a while, fumbling, breaking the tension that’s been building for the last two weeks. Felicity leads me upstairs to her bedroom, where the fumbling develops.
Afterward, we’re lying next to each other in her box room. There’s barely enough space for the two of us. I tell her I’ve missed my bus. ‘Stay,’ she says. We talk but eventually it’s time for bed; Felicity has work in the morning, and so do I. ‘You’ve got to be up early for that bus.’ So, she turns off the bedside lamp and we try to sleep. I should be content; the pub was fun, the conversation flowed, she invited me back and gave me tea in a TARDIS mug. But, of course, I can’t sleep. I lie awake. My coat is downstairs in the hall – there’s no way I could creep out of the bedroom and get my earphones from my coat pocket, connect them to my phone, and listen to ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’ or ‘The Unexploded Bomb’ without her noticing. I turn over and face the wall. It’s past midnight. I imagine the whole street asleep except me. ‘You awake?’ Her voice is startling, I thought she was dead to the world. Felicity turns. ‘There’s something you should know.’ My heart beats faster in anticipation. ‘I can trust you, can’t I?’
It’s such a direct question, I’m stunned. I want to say, of course, because I mean it, I do – and she can. Of course. ‘There’s something I do to get to sleep that’s a bit weird,’ she goes on, in darkness. ‘You know Dad’s Army?’ I make an affirmative hum. ‘I watch an episode before bed, have done since I was a kid. I’ve got them on my iPad. Even when I was a student, coming in after a night out, I’d put one on. Then, out like a light.’ There’s a pause. That’s not weird, I say. I’ve done something similar before to get to sleep. ‘Really? Can I turn on the light?’ I sit myself up against the headboard with Felicity. She gets her iPad from the bedside table, finds one of her favourite episodes to show me. We spend the next half-hour in bed with Captain Mainwaring, Pike, Frazer, Lance Corporal Jones, Wilson, and the rest. When it’s over, she puts the iPad back in its place, and switches off the light.
Before I know it, sunlight is shining through the curtains and Felicity’s alarm is going off, waking us both. We have a quick breakfast. I spill milk over my top, the same top I wore last night, and she helps me clean myself, so I look acceptable for the bus. ‘Good as new,’ she says, smiling, hitting my chest with a damp tea towel. ‘Now, on your way. I’ll see you soon.’ When? ‘Whenever.’
And again, before I know it, I’m kneeling by my son’s bed, years later, telling him there’s nothing in his room to be scared of. Even with the landing light on, he feels uneasy and unable to sleep. Do you have to go? ‘I have to go to bed too, believe it or not,’ I say. But this won’t persuade him to sleep. His pale face is deadly serious. Talk to me. Tell me something. So, I cross my legs (my legs make a cracking sound) and think of a story to send him to sleep. ‘Here’s a story.’ I tell him about the vicar we had to tea, back when people had vicars round for tea, and how we went into the basement to find him a drink, because we had a basement when I was a child and kept bottles of wine there, and we found an unexploded bomb from the war. A bomb! I don’t know how, but I’m making him laugh with funny voices, gesticulations, and when the story’s up, he’s happy for me to leave him. I go downstairs. Felicity’s watching the news, which has just started, but she flicks off the TV when I come into the room, and we go to bed.