The water board had been gathering outside in numbers like an enemy ready to attack. And then attack, they did. Opening up hole after hole after hole all along street, creating misery and chaos in order to prevail good clean running water. They were, in a heavy-handed big ugly way, replacing all the ancient Victorian pipes with big new long yellow ones. And despite a few white feathered protests it soon became clear that all the pipes really were going to have to be replaced. There was no getting around it. Only under it. With just two days to Christmas to go, the scenic view was not one of peace and goodwill. For wherever you gazed there was numerous deep holes surrounded on all sides by mountains of dirt and fractured concrete. It was all rather grim.
Was this what The Beatles meant by 4000 holes in Blackburn,
‘Where are you, what you doing?’ came her accusing voice from the adjacent bedroom.
There was a short spasm of silence.
‘I was looking out the window,’ Tom then said, still somewhat startled but happily drowning in the spirit of honesty. And then he added: ‘It’s carnage out there. There’s nowhere for folk to park a car. I don’t envy them workman, mind.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What with all that wind and blistering rain. Not a day to be outside.’
Those words should have comforted Emily. Because there she was, tucked up all warm and safe in bed. But she wasn’t happy. She wasn’t feeling very well and with Christmas around the corner this was not good.
‘My teeth hurt,’ was where it all began the night before the night before.
Hurting teeth was a major problem as Emily was in fear of the dentist. But by the stroke of midnight from when the first tickling of pain began its conquering of her lower jaw, her teeth soon became the least of her worries. For Emily, the pain of toothache had brought home some friends, many a familiar stranger to her. Along came a very sore throat (throat cancer), a never-ending headache (brain tumour) and she also now had a twisted stomach (bowel cancer).
‘Oh Tom, what on earth am I going to do? What if my teeth still hurt Christmas day? I won’t be able have turkey and roast beef. Oh I feel so rotten.’
‘We’ll eat turkey and roast beef alright,’ said Tom Barnaby.
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘Because I am.’
‘But you don’t have teeth that hurt.’
A routine silence prevailed. But was soon punctured.
‘You’ll be fine,’ he said.
You could always rely on Tom Barnaby to say how everything would be fine. Her husband was a happy go lucky chap who got up early without complaint every morning to go out and deliver milk. He had grown up without ever having a problem with his teeth. Tom put this down to the fact that ever since he was a small boy he had always eaten a crunchy apple and drank a glass of cold milk every day. All that calcium over the years had looked after him.
‘Why don’t you ever get teeth issues?’ she would bemoan.
‘Because I drink milk every day I guess,’ he would reply.
‘You know how much I hate the taste of milk,’ would be the end of the conversation.
Milk – how the hell did she ever end up with a milkman? Waking her up at 3am every bleeding morning? Simple answer. When they married – thirty-two years ago – Tom wasn’t a milkman. He was deputy manager at a car showroom on the‘It’s arctic monkeys out there?’
It paid well. It was like they lived a better life in them days. Then fate
introduced him to voluntary redundancy and soon after that he was delivering
milk. His mate Gene O’Dare got him the job. Put in a good word and the
interview was a formality. So that was what Tom Barnaby did for a living. He
sailed about the town in the small hours on his float, enjoying the
tranquillity of dawn, the first peeps from stirring birds, the occasional stray
fox and morning jogger. Tom liked his own company while at work. But sometimes
too much time on your own plays tricks with your brain. He would often return
home exhausted and spout the most inexplicable things. Like for instance when
he came into the house this morning and said:
‘You mean brass monkeys?’
‘What did I say?’
He then scratched his head and put on the kettle.
Tom always liked to make a cup of tea and to prepare food for his wife. Especially right now, when she needed him most. He felt bad that Emily was feeling poorly and he wished there was something he could do about her sore teeth and also, her constant worrying. Emily did like to worry. Well, no. She didn’t like worrying, she didn’t enjoy worrying, it was just something she did. Out of habit. Emily worried about money when they had money, she worried about money when they didn’t have as much money and she worried about what it would be like if they didn’t have any money at all. Emily and Tom – homeless and starving and holding hands in the icy cold. Then she would worry about how perhaps they wouldn’t actually be holding hands. How they wouldn’t be holding hands as they were no longer on speaking terms on account of being bitter, broke, homeless. Who would hold her hand then instead of Tom? No one. She would be on the streets, alone and hungry. Without a hand to hold!
Tom Barnaby liked to think he never worried about money. That such a worry was too exhausting. No. Good health was the most important thing. Without good health then you had cause to worry. Tom felt that it was all her frantic worrying about being worried all the time that brought about her many complaints. But then again, he was surely no expert. Maybe Emily was right to be worried. He could have easily found another car showroom and gone on to become a manager, what with his track record. Had he bottled the challenge and gone for an easy route instead? And where exactly were the loyalties in milk? What about the redundancies that every milkman in the depot had been fretting about since Doug Francis was made redundant in July? Others would follow. That was the truth. It was only a matter of time.
Perhaps he should worry too? She always said that she’d feel much happier if she knew that her husband was a worrier as well. How he might empathise with her in a more comforting manner. Maybe he should do some over-the-top worrying on Christmas Day. Sort of like a surprise present. Complain about climate change, how we as the dominant species had done serious damage to the longevity of life on the planet and what is the point of being born in the first place what with all the pain and suffering in the world. That sort of thing. But what if his worrying backfired and made Emily more of a nervous wreck? No. He would carry on the same.
Every Christmas Day they walked the ten minutes to the pub to feast on the Christmas Roast. And Tom was certain that his wife would be fine come the day. He was that confident that all would be well, that the next morning he began to whistle a happy little tune and he maintained it throughout his round. The tune he whistled was a song called Mistletoe and Wine by Cliff Richard. And then an hour or so later, while still whistling, as he headed back to the depot, it began to thickly flake with snow. Tom then wondered where exactly could he buy some mistletoe. Perhaps he could get some at Marks and Spencer? They might sell some next to the fruit and nuts.
By the time Tom made his way home he was tired and even though there had been all that rain the previous day the snow was settling fast, over two inches now, he was easily sidetracked from thoughts of purchasing some mistletoe. He liked the simple cleansing silence of snow and it had really come down fast, the roads layered in a thick white crust. He thought about the men down them holes in a few hours, shivering and shovelling out snow. Tom looked forward to getting indoors and making a cup of tea. He wondered if Emily would want a hot drink, what with her hurting teeth. He decided instead that he would make her a tepid peppermint tea and stir in some crushed ibuprofen without her knowing. That should do the trick. Keep the wolf of pain at bay. For tomorrow was Christmas Eve and Tom was certain that the surprise presents that he had purchased for his wife – a funbag of blank video cassettes, a pink stressball, a Philippa Gregory novel and some purple jewelled earrings – would most definitely take her mind off of her toothache.