His wife died. He came home from the funeral, drew the curtains and went to bed. The curtains stayed closed until his daughter visited a week later. He grew a beard because there was no reason not to. He began to smell because baths were a bother. He took to eating spaghetti, cold, straight from the tin.
After some months, his daughter took him in hand. She made arrangements. She owed him that at least, she felt.
The bereavement counsellor had a bland smell about him, like soap from the pound shop. There was a flowchart in his office, illustrating the recognised stages of the grieving process. It looked to Des like a badly drawn map with no scenery. The counsellor asked him if he could identify his current state on the flowchart. Des looked at the chart, scanning it for the word 'tired'. It wasn't there, so he just shrugged. On his pad, the counsellor wrote the words, 'Noticeable lack of affect'.
At the next session the counsellor greeted him, then sat silently for some minutes while Des looked at him, bewildered. Eventually the counsellor said, 'Silence is okay, you know.' The silence resumed until the counsellor spoke again. 'Have you had any thoughts since the last time we met?'
Fidgetting, Des said, 'I hardly feel like I knew her.'
'I was away with work a lot, on the road, repping. She developed a life of her own really.'
The counsellor nodded. 'Much in the way of mutual friends, shared interests?'
'Only our girl. Our daughter.'
'She liked the tea dances. At the Rivoli ballroom.'
'So you shared that, then?'
Des shook his head. 'I let her go on her own.'
The expression on the counsellor's face decided Des against ever seeing him again. As the session ended he reeled off a to-do list for Des of what he called action points; take up a new hobby, find out more about Pam's interests, speak to one new person every week. Des felt like a child being sent out on a shopping errand.
Halfway to the Rivoli he got off the bus, having decided to turn round and go home. He sat on a wall and thought of Pam and how she'd always ask him to go dancing and he'd always make an excuse. In an off-licence, he bought a quarter bottle of vodka, then he went in the cemetery to drink it.
Arriving at the ballroom, he dodged the flow of dancers and found a corner. Soon he sensed somebody standing in his light. He looked up from examining his hands to see a white-haired woman of around his age.
She smiled. 'I wasn't sure it was you. With the beard. You've lost some weight. We met, you know…' Her voice fell away.
They'd met, certainly. It was Mary, Pam's friend and sometime dance partner. Des had met her for the first time at the funeral. He remembered thinking her outfit a bit blowsy, given the occasion.
She smiled again. 'Are you dancing?'
Des looked past her to the circling dancers. 'I was thinking of sitting these ones out.'
She took his arm. He was struck by the strength of her grip. He let himself be guided across the gleaming floor. His clumsiness filled him with an odd, unaccountable shame.
As the tea dance ended, she released him.
He said, 'Not really my thing this.'
She laughed. 'I'll say. You dance like you got a book out of the library about it. And took it back without reading it.'
He winced. Looking past her again he said, 'I could really do with talking. To you, I mean. Not here though.'
She looked him up and down and nodded. 'There's a lunch club at the Well, top of the High Street. I'm often there.'
He said, 'Thanks,' and felt ashamed again.
As with the dancing, so with the lunch club. He felt a stranger. The smell of mince that hung in the air turned his stomach. The place, it seemed to him, spoke of the end of things. In his head, he named the club the funeral directors’ waiting room.
He'd never been one for small talk. Pam, on their rare trips away, would happily chat to strangers on trains, but he couldn't see the point. And these people here! It was a puzzle to him, the way people could apparently become more irritating and stupid as they progressed through life, when, logically, they could be expected to become wiser and better adjusted.
And so he gravitated to Mary, lunchtime after lunchtime. He wanted to talk about the present, to seem competent and interesting but it all felt like an act. So they talked about Pam instead.
There came to be two things that he wanted to ask Mary. He asked them both on the same day. He swallowed the last of his pudding, dabbed at his mouth with his hankie and, without looking at her, said, 'So, did Pam ever used to talk about me much?'
She wouldn't look at him, and then she did. 'We'd talk about all sorts really. Her job up Iceland. What the girls there were up to. Your girl. All sorts.'
'But not me.'
'Not loads I suppose. Sometimes. She was very loyal.'
Des frowned. 'I don't suppose we did much together. I was busy. Mouths to feed.' He knew it sounded like an excuse and probably was one.
She looked at him, gently this time. 'Bit chalk and cheese, weren't you? You two.'
He nodded. 'I had my interests too. In fact, I was meaning to say.' He cleared his throat. 'I was hoping to ask you.'
She balked at the suggestion of the country proper so they took a bus to Oxleas Wood. They didn't stay as long as Des planned, partly because Mary had no sensible shoes. As it came on to rain, they took shelter in a nearby café.
Carefully sipping his tea he said, 'Perhaps I should have made sandwiches. The prices are a bit steep here.'
Mary made a small 'Hmph,' sound under her breath and said 'Doesn't hurt to push the boat out once in a while. You only live once.'
They both looked down the hill at the greenery, squinting slightly as the sun came out again. Mary said, 'Did you used to do this with Pam?'
Des shook his head. 'Don't think she was interested.'
'Did you ask her?'
'She wasn't interested.'
'Well you asked me.'
'But you're interested.'
Mary shrugged. 'It's more that I'm being…' She paused and lit a cigarette. 'Perhaps you should have asked her.' She blew smoke through her nose. 'I think it hurt her a bit, the way you shut her out.'
'I never meant to shut her out. Never. We were just different.'
'Do you think that she was happy?'
Des shook his head again. 'Don't suppose either of us were, particularly. Or expected it. Think we were both brought up to eat what was put in front of us.'
Flicking ash, Mary said, 'Maybe we should call it a day.'
He looked at her, anxious. 'How do you mean?'
'Get back before it rains again, I mean.'
On the bus back, he said he might like to go dancing again. She patted his arm and said, 'There's lessons you can go to. I'll give you the number.'
He didn't quite have two left feet, but he wasn't a natural and well he knew it. It was embarrassment that hobbled him. He felt self-conscious attempting a simple waltz; how people braved the Charleston was beyond him. But the tutor was patient and the women seemed glad he was there. Perhaps because he was the only man in the class, they were kind to him. And for some time now, he'd felt a stranger to kindness.
At the lunch club for the first time in ages, he deliberately arrived before Mary so she would have to choose. She came in, waved and joined him. They exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, and then there was a pause.
Quietly, Des said, 'I've been noticing my hands lately. How old they look.'
Mary said, 'We're none of us getting any younger.'
Speaking in as level a tone as he could manage, he said, 'I didn't do that well by Pam. I know it. But I can change. I'm willing to have a go at being different.'
Frowning, Mary asked, 'How's the dancing going?'
He sat back, distracted from his train of thought. Then he gathered himself and said, 'Not so dusty. I'm the only chap there. Quite sought after, I am.'
'Good for you. They're always short of blokes.'
Des smiled. 'Not making you jealous am I?'
This wasn't going well. But he decided to battle on. 'I was wondering if you'd like to go dancing. At the Rivoli. I feel ready, pretty much.'
Mary sighed. 'Well, I'll be there anyway. I'm regular there, aren't I?'
He only managed three dances with her, and one of those was a gentleman's excuse me. As the afternoon ground on he felt as if every cell in his body was settling near his feet, like sediment. He caught up with her at the bus stop. A knot of youths was milling around in the shelter. He stood near her. In a strained, breathy whisper he said, 'I asked you dancing for a reason, you know. I really quite like you.' The words sounded strange, as if he was speaking a second language and was parroting something he'd learnt by heart from a phrase book.
Mary took him by the elbow and led him out of earshot of the youths. Des had once been made redundant in his early thirties. The manager who told him the news led him into his office with the same touch on the elbow.
She sat on the low wall beyond the bus-shelter and Des did the same. Watching the passing cars, she said, 'I'm really not looking for romance at my age. Not that I'm past it, mind. I wouldn't be averse to some good company and a bit of the other. But not love again. I've had my turn.'
Des thought for a moment, wondered if this was a clue, a kind of invitation. He blurted, 'I've been thinking of a weekend away. Brighton. It's only a pound each way on Megabus. Plus the booking fee.'
'I don't think so, Des. No thanks.'
He said, 'We could tell the bed and breakfast that we're married, if that bothers you.'
She said, 'You don't really know me, do you? I don't lie, and I don't live by what others think of me.'
'You're a nice man, Des. I like you better than I expected.'
'From what Pam said.'
'I thought you liked me. From the way you were acting. Being nice to me.'
Mary cleared her throat and lit a cigarette. 'I sort of promised Pam that I'd keep an eye out. Make sure you were coping.'
Des smarted. 'But I came to you.'
She looked sheepish. 'I know. I wasn't going to bother. The way I saw it, I owed it to her but I didn't owe it to you. But then, there you were.'
'What had she been saying about me?'
'Nothing drastic. Just about not really being there.'
She sighed. 'I think she thought you might be playing away. Back when you were on the road.'
Des stood, struggling not to raise his voice. 'I never. Really, I never.'
She stood too. 'I believe you. I think you were just being you. Off on your own somewhere in Desworld.'
He surprised himself on the day, making the best of it as he did. A bit like cocking a snook. He made sandwiches for the journey. He ironed and packed a change of clothes. He was conscious of looking after himself for once.
Brighton had changed since last he was there. The old atmosphere of polite sleaze had gone. Now the streets were full of girls with frightening pieces of metal embedded in their faces.
The guest house was pleasant enough, although there was a slight catty smell of damp about it. He was reminded of his days on the road, the freedom of being unknown in a strange town. When the crowds and the youngsters and the couples got too much he went for walks in the surrounding countryside. On his last day he had time to kill before his coach left. He went down to the beach for a last look at the sea and a think.
As well that Mary had refused him, he thought. Too much of the past there, muddying the waters. He thought of the Rivoli, about whether he'd go back there and give the dancing another try. She would be there and he would feel awkward. And besides, he was no Fred Astaire. But there were people there, and he needed people, however much they might disappoint. He decided to toss for it. Heads for yes. The coin spun upwards, seemed to pause in the breeze, then fell at his feet with a clink. It was tails. He bent to pick it up, muttering, 'Alright, best of three then.'