Nathan never came home last night. The useless son of a bitch.
This morning, Caroline had known, even before she moved or opened her eyes, that she had woken alone in their bed. She had yawned, stretched, rolled over and then thumped her lover's pillow.
Yet another confrontation would be totally pointless. At least once a week, when Nathan turned up around lunch-time, after having been missing since the early evening of the day before, he would say: "Look, this is my home and I can come and go as I please, so what's the problem?"
Their main problem was forever the same: Money.
There had been two bills in the post this morning, both had FINAL NOTICE printed on them, both stated that the amount due should be paid immediately, and both threatened future court action which would result in legal fees being added to the debt. Caroline had placed the bills on the dinner-table, propped up against Nathan's Playboy mug. She had stared at them while she ate her breakfast cereal. Four hours later, Caroline stared at them again while she and her daughter ate their lunch.
Where the hell is Nathan? she wondered. Probably burnt out after a night's debauchery, still curled up on Tony's sofa-bed, she decided. Well, he had better get his act together soon or I'm going to start looking for a job myself, she thought, knowing how Nathan would react to that idea. Work seemed to be the most obscene four-letter word that he had ever heard. "Self-inflicted slavery," he called it. He also said: "What's the point in going out and grafting when money gravitates towards me naturally." And Nathan was certainly the centre of his own universe, a source of pure persuasion that no one could ignore. Well, at least that was his theory. "I should have started a religion," he had once told her, high on his latest small victory. "Come worship at the house of Nathan," he had proclaimed with his arms raised to the heavens, "and leave your money at the door!"
So far, the only religious part that Caroline could see him playing in her life was that of a false prophet. Fate, it seemed, had the future mapped out in a way that differed greatly from Nathan's numerous plans. No matter how hard he schemed away, they were always short of money.
"Kirby needs some new clothes," she had warned him yesterday.
"Kids grow quickly at that age," she had reasoned.
"You're feeding her too much," had been his response.
It was mid-afternoon and getting dark outside when he finally showed up. Caroline was sitting at the table, looking through the children's wear section of her Littlewoods catalogue while trying to decide what to cook for dinner later, her options limited. Kirby was sitting opposite, drawing a picture of her Mummy with felt-tipped pens. "So, how are my two favourite females?" Nathan called from the hallway, closing the front door behind him.
"Daddy!" Kirby abandoned her drawing, jumped down from her chair, then ran out of the room to greet him.
"What a day!" Nathan stated when he appeared in the living-room's doorway. His dark hair was ruffled, his black suit creased. "Hi ya, baby." He grinned at Caroline. "I gotta go sit down," he said to Kirby, who was standing beside him, holding his hand. He started to walk awkwardly towards the sofa, a strained look on his face.
"Why you walking like that?" Caroline asked. "You look like you've been horse riding or something."
"I don't wanna talk about it. It's been a long day. And brutal. Far too brutal." He eased himself down onto the sofa; then winced when Kirby flopped down next to him. "Easy," he told her, and then he embraced the little girl and kissed the top of her head.
"What have you been up to now?" Caroline wearily wondered.
"I think I've sprained something in my groin," Nathan quietly said, looking down at his lap.
"Really?" Caroline raised an eyebrow. "And how'd you manage that one?"
"Er, I slipped in a icy puddle, downtown. I nearly ended up doing the splits," he explained.
"I can do the splits," Kirby cheerfully told him.
The telephone, on top of the tallest of a nest of tables beside the sofa, started to ring. Nathan reached to answer it.
"Yo?" he said, smiling at Caroline. "Hello?" Then his smile faded. "Think you got the wrong number." He placed the telephone's handset back on its base. "Wrong number," he said, looking at Caroline.
"Wrong number?" She did not believe him.
He tutted, then sighed. "Okay, it was that weirdo again," Nathan admitted, carefully getting up from the sofa. "We'll get our number changed."
It's not a problem, she could imagine him saying. He was on a crash; Caroline could sense it. That "weirdo" was rapidly driving her up the wall. The silent telephone calls had been a daily occurrence all last week, sometimes twice or three times a day, but there had been none yesterday and she had hoped that, whoever it was, they had grown tired of tormenting her. Nathan had said ignore them and they will soon stop. Well, obviously he was wrong and he had better do something about it, or she would.
"Hmmm..." Nathan saw the electric and water bills waiting for him on the dinner-table as he limped over to the kitchen.
Kirby pointed the remote control at the television and turned it on. Caroline left the catalogue open on the table, followed Nathan into the kitchen. "So... Where'd you spend last night?" she asked.
"Tony's. There's no food." He had the fridge door open, one hand caressing his stubbled chin. "No bacon."
"There's some ham. Make a ham sandwich."
"Ham?" He said, holding up a thin square of the pink meat. "Call this processed crap ham? I call it spam." He dropped the slice of meat into its plastic container. "I need a proper bacon sandwich and a few hundred cups of coffee." Nathan tossed the container into the fridge, and then kicked the fridge's door close. "I'll be back in a second." That lopsided grin meant he was happy about something. The vacant look in his eyes meant he had not slept last night.
He was back in a minute, standing in the kitchen holding four near-splitting Tesco's carrier-bags. "Been shopping," Nathan announced as he lifted the bags up. He set them down on a worktop, started to take out their contents. "Big fat turkey, various veg, mince pies, Christmas pudding, squirty cream, Jack Daniels..."
Daniel, thought Caroline. And that name was linked to many memories...
"...couple of steaks, mushrooms, prawns, tonnes of tins, a few bottles of wine. Ah, bacon!" Nathan pulled out his prize.
"You didn't use that credit card again?" Caroline tried to sound angry, but she could not force herself to feel it.
"And..." He dragged a BhS bag out from behind the Tesco carrier-bags. "Christmas has most certainly come early. I got some new clothes for Kirby."
"Bloody idiot!" But Caroline was almost laughing.
"No, no, no," Nathan said, shaking his finger at her in mock reproach. "I didn't get caught, not even on camera... And this is the very last time, I promise." His hands cupped around the back of her skull, he gave her forehead a wet, sucking kiss. "When'd my Giro come?"
"Last Friday," she said, eagerly helping him empty the bags.
"Did it?" Nathan looked through his wallet. "Here." He held out a twenty-pound note. "Treat yourself. We don't have to worry about money anymore."
"You sold the car?"
"No. I mean we don't have to worry about money, ever." He had cut open the packet of bacon and was laying out rashers under the cooker's grill.
"I told you, you wouldn't get a thousand for it. It was a waste of time advertising it for that much. I don't think it's even worth half that," Caroline estimated.
"Forget the car, we're keeping it for now," Nathan said, spreading margarine on a slice of bread.
"Alright, so we're keeping the car." She did not think he had wanted to sell it in the first place, otherwise, why would he have priced it so high? "So how are our money problems solved?"
"Have patience, my dear," he told her, making the first cup of coffee. "All will be revealed soon."
Caroline was upstairs in Kirby's room, helping her daughter try on her new clothes, and Nathan was falling asleep on the sofa downstairs, when the telephone started to ring. Caroline walked through to their bedroom, over to the extension line. They both picked up at the same time. Caroline hesitated before saying anything. She was surprised and relieved to hear Nathan say hello, then start a conversation with his mother.
"And how are you getting on at your new job?" Nathan's mother asked.
Caroline had to stop herself from laughing. She pressed the telephone's mute button.
"Going great guns," said Nathan. Caroline could picture him slouched on the sofa with a big, bullshitting grin on his face. "Closing the deals, getting ahead," he told his mother.
And that, Caroline thought, for several reasons was just the biggest lie. Nathan had had a wide range of jobs in the past, but he had not done an honest day's work since she had known him. The town's main employment was offered in the fields of engineering, retail, clerical and production-line work. Nathan may love bacon, but he had lasted only a few days on a line packing it, due to what he called "post sliced-pig stress syndrome." And sure, they always somehow managed to survive, but they never seemed to really get ahead.
"We're going away on Thursday. You and your girlfriend must come over and have dinner with us before we leave." There was a trace of contempt when Nathan's mother said "girlfriend".
"Going anywhere nice?" Nathan enquired.
"Only Sydney for a fortnight," his mother said.
Only? That's the other side of the planet, thought Caroline. She had never been abroad.
"How about tomorrow for dinner?" Nathan suggested.
Caroline hung up the telephone in their bedroom; then she returned to Kirby.
"Don't have to worry about dinner tomorrow night," Nathan called upstairs a few minutes later. "I'm treating you to an evening out."
"'Ever drifting down the stream. Lingering in the golden gleam. Life, what is it but a dream?'" Nathan, having finished reading Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking-Glass, closed the book.
Kirby's smile briefly reminded Caroline of Kirby's father. Kirby is three-years-old and has never met her real father. And her real father did not know that he has a daughter: he had left town a week before Caroline discovered that she was pregnant. Caroline and Nathan have been together for nearly two years now and Kirby has only ever known him as her "Daddy".
"Ah, please read more," Kirby sleepily pleaded, looking up at Nathan doe-eyed.
Caroline was standing in the doorway, where she had listened to Nathan read Kirby her bedtime story. Watching them together, she remembered one of the main reasons why she had left her parent's home and moved in with him: Kirby adored him and he always tried his hardest to be a loving father.
"That's it. End of the book. We'll start a new one tomorrow," he said softly from the edge of the bed, reaching out to tussle Kirby's hair as she snuggled under the sheets. "See you in the morning."
Nathan switched the light off, paused in the doorway for a moment, Caroline blocking his path.
"You know, sometimes you really get on my tits," she whispered without malice. "And sometimes I love you to bits."
"I know." He grinned, and then lightly kissed the tip of her nose.
They moved from Kirby's bedroom doorway out onto the landing, Caroline quietly closing the door behind them.
"Need anything from the BP?" Nathan asked as he began to descend the stairs.
"What you going for?"
"Run out," he stated, taking a crumpled cigarette packet from a trouser pocket.
"Could get another pint of milk," Caroline said, following him downstairs.
"Milk, you got it. Won't be long." Nathan headed for the front door.
Caroline went through to the living-room, closed the curtains. Sitting on the sofa, she heard their car start and then pull off the driveway. Caroline experienced a sudden feeling of loneliness, of vulnerability, but not her own: an empathic link with an unknown source. Unknown, yet vaguely familiar...
She was already staring at the telephone before its trill vibrated the air with tension. Caroline answered it immediately. "Hello?"
There was no reply.
The calls were always the same. They would phone and then say nothing. But, who?
"Hello?" she said again before slamming down the receiver.
Who kept doing this? And why? Was it someone she knew? Someone Nathan knew? Well, whoever you are, have fun, she thought as she unplugged the telephone from its wall socket.
"Sorry I took so long. You know the tunnel under the railway lines on the other side of town? It's been blocked off. Had to go around the bypass," Nathan explained when he returned. "Must have been a major pile-up. There's police, an ambulance, even a fire-engine over there. Looked like they were cutting someone out of a car."
"Had a phone call while you were gone," Caroline coldly told him.
"Who was it?" Nathan yawned, taking the TV guide from under the coffee-table.
"Our friendly pervert. Nathan, you going to do something?" she demanded as he sat beside her on the sofa.
"Well, there's Panorama, Newsnight, Anglia News, the end of a repeat of Cracker, and it's still snowing on Channel 5," he said, flipping through the channels, then killing the picture with the remote control. "So I may go out and steal someone's satellite dish in the near future."
"About the bloody phone calls!" Caroline exasperated.
"You use that function to get the last caller's number?"
"One-four-seven-one? It's always the same message. The number's withheld."
He slowly stood up again; then he wandered over to the kitchen. "I'll phone the operator and report them tomorrow. And we'll get the number changed. It's not a problem. Alright? You fancy a battle before bed?"
Nathan's always so laid back, it's a wonder he doesn't topple over, Caroline thought. Well, I've had enough. "Why wait 'til tomorrow?" She reached over the side of the sofa for the chessboard.
He did not answer.
Does he know who it is? Is that why they don't say anything to me? Is it a woman he's seeing?
Nathan returned with a bottle of Liebfraumilch, two wine glasses and an ashtray. "Where'd the pieces go? Ah, found them." They were under the coffee-table. He opened their wooden box, and then set out the carved pieces on the board. "You can be white."
"Why don't you phone them now?" Caroline tried to keep her cool, moving a pawn forward.
"Because..." He lifted a knight over his wall of pawns. "I'm playing chess. Your move."
She advanced another pawn. "Whoever it is, they're really beginning to piss me off."
"So I've gathered." He pushed one of his pawns forward.
"I know this is your house, your phone, but if you don't..."
"I will, first thing in the morning," Nathan promised. "Your move."
She brought one of her bishops out and took his knight.
"Eh?" He tutted, shook his head in disbelief. "Either you've worked out a brilliant new strategy based on sacrificing your best pieces, or that was just the dumbest move I've ever seen." Nathan sighed and replaced her bishop with one of his pawns.
He knows who it is! Is it another woman?
Caroline hooked a finger under the board, flipped it off the sofa. Chess pieces rained down onto the carpet.
Nathan laughed. "What was that? The apocalypse? Global thermonuclear warfare?"
"Son of a bitch... You know who's making those calls," her anger now obvious.
"No. I don't," he said, calm as ever. "You know whoever is making the calls. At least, if you don't, they sure as shit know you. And that's no way to talk about my mother..."