We the Great Gazebo Built

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He was driving, with Andrew on his left. A big man, in the seatbelt, and the small pod-like car; his knees at diagonals to find the corner-length, and restless arms. Andrew drew the window down, then half-way up again. Outside the air was warm and crude and folded with oleates. You could see them veining over reflective surfaces, and toppling from the rooves of cars in front. So much metal and glass. Heat-zones and small enclosures. He put his forearm on the steering wheel and tried to lower his head a little. Outside a woman went by, lapping at a pink ice-cream, in a bright pink top. She walked storkily as she tried to keep it from her chest.

They say the weather will be worse on Sunday though, he said.

Hotter?

No, bad.

If there's rain, he was thinking, if there’s rain they'll all gather in the gazebo at the bottom of the garden, and there'll be that smell, of wet congregated people, and wet plastics. Long thin chains and the ionised air; the backs of people's heads, the taste of salt. They will be standing watching the rain through the long open front, and the wet in their voices will condense on the walls, and about the necks of bottles of standing wine. That is where I will be — behind them — on a stool with a corkscrew. They will talk, and the roofslack will bag with rain. And at night I’ll run it off from beneath with a broom.

What kind of a party is it? Andrew asked.

Oh, a buffet lunch, he said. It's not for anything in particular. It’s for my parents to have their party, or for their friends to enjoy it. For people to collect once a year and hold glasses of wine. For them to talk to someone neither family nor spouse. They were all retired now. For drinks in arcadia, for salary-racing their children. In a sense for the Wigginses — the friends of his parents who hold this party annually, and have done for thirty years or more; only this year they're moving, and need another's garden in which to host. With their own they were having trouble. A mobile phone mast had gone up — they didn’t think about it at the time, but we’re now all such aggregates of cancer-in-waiting, such wandering antennae for death. For him it was a leaning branch, this party, touching his life at either end. It reached in one direction to early summer memories of going, of being a child on the back seat of his parents' car; of fields through the rear windscreen while in front his mother criticised his father's driving. Them then at an age which he was now. He could remember them perhaps as even younger than himself. And so by extension it was a presentiment of being as old as them too, of having friends and guests all old enough to die, of attending parties at which you can't quite yet start to count the missing, or hold from asking where John is, and why he hasn't come. You pass through a tube and come out grey, it seems, and if you pull it out long like a telescope you'll find it's in sixty sections and each one marked by a party in June. Or you push it in and pull it out again and this time it's fifteen Olympic Games; again and it's twenty-six eclipses of the moon. You wonder how many more long summers; how many trips to France, accidents in cars, great Wimbledon finals you have yet to see. If you'll ever stay up screwing all night again, or if that's all over now. His early memories — of the party, of the summer party at the Wigginses' — are of a shelved garden with beds and the height of a two course brick wall. He remembers lying on the grass, and older children reading horror stories aloud. Something about human skins. The drunk slinging of bees almost too heavy with pollen to lift themselves. And then later they are of a field that opens out the back, which is long grass and a stranded copse where now the mobile phone mast stands; and they are of the girl, who is a daughter of other parents there, the same age as himself, who runs with him in the field and falls over and with him for want of air and sky and a grassbasket hole in the pale of sun. Clouds too bright to look at. And later still they are of being old enough not to go any more, not to go at all, and he thought of those parties in their first years without children; of adults dipping strawberries on their own, and of their quiet. That whole thing taken away now, that now over too.

It's not for anything in particular, he said. It's for the Wigginses, in a sense — they're friends of my parents and they hold this party every year, but they're moving house right now …

Oh just a buffet lunch Andrew nodded.

He nodded into his armpit, then yawned there, his arm up holding the handle over the window and the air still static and heavy about his wrist. Andrew left his head there as they moved off again, then stopped, the car still singing in the bastard sun. He glanced across at him, then back to the wheel. The last time they had done this together — erected the gazebo in his parents' garden — it was for his mother's retirement party. She'd just shucked away forty years in the national health and was now she said, stepping into the gazebo. Those rotters, she had said. She had said You give away all that, and then they expect you to throw them the party. It was what made her buy the gazebo, in Homebase, in the first place. And then when the day itself was wet the roofslack bagged with rain and skewed the poles and lifts of wind sucked and billowed the insides like a lung. You could see the water swaying up there. You could imagine washer-women carrying suds in their skirts as they walked. And then at night he ran it off from beneath in bare feet, standing so it ditched on him. Something so particular about new rain. The gazebo was in truth a large tent with marketing fantasies. To find a gazebo in there she had said, in Homebase, you would have to ask for a Chinese temple.

Man said Andrew, I'm really tired.

That last time when they had put it up together though, that morning, it was bright. They had had a royal scene of it. Andrew hadn't been up for a job in months and gotten to saying things like, Don't waste my time, and, You're wasting my time — you know the way a thing becomes precious once you have enough of it to think about. Brood with. And he resented being always so free to help. They had carried the thing into the garden and put it on the ground and lifted out the poles and the jointing hips and the sheets of folded plastic — all box-fresh and packed with factory air. He had knelt and pressed the ground with his thumb, testing for firmness; then fished a peg from the bag and tested again with that. It was March-moist and slow and gave evenly. When he drew it out the insides of the rift looked like black chocolate. He noticed the dew-sketch of grass in the suede of Andrew's trainers, and in the cardboard of the box. That would soften, and be a problem later. At the top end of the garden a yew tree drank massively.

So we'll lay it all out first, he had said, and then push the bits together. He looked up, and then back down to the poles. There's a diagram, he added. Andrew was standing in the sun, and squinting.

So what have you been up to this week, Andrew asked.

I don't know. He started to lose it about then; Andrew probably a little later. When the joints didn't push-fit fully. They'd seize somewhere short of the hilt and so the lengths were all slightly off. And there was movement in it. It was always trying to sprangle out of square. They'd try and bull one corner and it would warp and twist, and elsewhere shrug up an arm at the pending sun. There are a few images which sustain: of Andrew standing with one hand hipped and touching his eyelids; of Andrew routing mud from the sole of his trainer. He was balanced on one foot as he held the other up, and worked at the grille with a twig.

Maybe we should grease the pole ends this time, he said. You know, to help them slip in better.

I don't know said Andrew. They might just pop when we when we try and stand it. I'm tired. What have you been up to this week?

He drove on. They came through the splayed star junction under the railway bridge where it's always bad and passed out along the sports ground, where the road was faster and the sun came through railings to their left. The railings slatted the car with thin oblique shadows, stuttering their left eyes with magenta-blue-orange the colours all drifting and moving off, as though from some distant gas explosion. He thought of fricatives; of the sound of flipping through a day-pad calendar, or one which spins on an axis. And then of the falling boards of station displays.

So you think we should do it all dry? he said. Like last time.

Or maybe he let it pass.

His mother would be there when they arrived, and would herself have a stroke to pull. For his mother everything had to be difficult. She would say Yes but -, and then stop to think. She would say, If in doubt do nothing, and, Second thoughts are better than first, third than second, and so on. She would say Whatever it is it's never quite what you want it to be. It bred aggressive indecision. One time in a car park she had been faced with spaces to the left, in front, and to the right. Spoilt for choice she had said, and sat there paralysed. And so with the gazebo, they would have to move it back and forth, hitch it to a bush, then consider if it wouldn't be better placed somewhere else …. You can keep going, he would say, presenting yourself with only rational criteria. But if the system you're in doesn't adhere, you'll never find your way out.

Some people, she once had said, seem to lead a charmed existence. Some people lead a charmed existence.

It was when they were having lunch together.

It was when he was working on that house and she in her retirement had decided to pull down the walls and move the kitchen and relay the drain. And she wanted to rebuild the chimney stacks. They were in a room of bare floorboards at a round tin table with a hole in the middle, presumably for a parasol. They were sitting in plastic chairs. Above them the lightbulb was naked and there was a brick-red line down the wire, and dust on the window cill and on the top of the light switch and along the remaining runs of skirting. Sockets all twisting from walls of naked plaster. The air dry and toneless as they sat there, among fallen braids of dust. They had spent the morning digging, he hefting clay from the trenchline and struggling to free the clods from his spade. Throughout the morning bending files of rain had towed on his clothes and moistened the site, and the clay wadded to his boots which had become incogitantly heavy. As he walked they resealed with the ground on every step. He sat in the plastic chair behind the plates and a jam jar full of tea and the spidered furls of tomato stobs. Your sister like me is unlucky, she had said. Some things descend.

She has gone through life, she was saying, never quite getting the things she wanted. Look at the episode with the river for example, or the wonky bar in the ballet exam. There are a hundred things. For unlucky people the world is difficult. And then some just seem to breeze through, nary a care. They have only to touch the doors. She paused. You can take an arbitrary position, and then all the rest follows, with you making only the sensible deductions. You can proceed rationally from anywhere; you just keep proving things to yourself, he was thinking.

They seem to be leading a charmed existence, she said. She paused. Look at Lucy Bell. Look at Andrew, golly.

He looked out the window, at the obtuse heap he had made: at the licked clay curds and the welts where the spade had smacked away and left the surface tacky and stippled like icing. Andrew was his sister's boyfriend. He looked at the table.

They came out past the sports ground and broke into a clear spell of light, in which his eyeball flared briefly and then shrank. There were more women with ice-creams, some with prams, talking to their friends, and a fluorescent board for roses at the next traffic light. Andrew drew his phone from his pocket to look at it, and then left it in his hand. He was slack all over — neck, wrists. Watching the road from somewhere below his shoulders. Breathing in his mouth. They were coming through the village now.

Do you need anything? he asked. Do you want to pick anything up before we get there?

It was all happening on the other side of the windscreen. Andrew shook his head. Then Andrew remembered they weren't looking at each other, and so he said No.

* * *

"Timothy!" she called, and that was another thing. Whenever she became frustrated or enraged with a man they naturally became Timothy, who was her husband. She'd actually call them Timothy by an associative instinct. If it happened with a woman the name was Juliet — her sister. Juliet lived in Honour Oak.

"Timothy! Just stop a moment and —"

"Andrew."

"Alright then Andrew just stop a moment — no no no — just stop, just stop. No. Think."

She went in. She spiked the "k" with her forefinger then went straight in, walking very fast. Behind her the poles were laid out in a neat rectangle on the ground, about an even inch of green between the ends of each section, and all parts male to female facing. It floated downhill, like an architect's chain or the graphlines of a contour sketch. The return jet on the swimming pool coughed sporadically, bringing up small reefs of bubbles which rode away and snapped. Andrew picked up two lengths, slotted them together, and put them down. He stood over them. Then he moved on to the next pair. I was still sorting out legs. My father — actually Timothy — came out and looked at Andrew, then about the rest of the garden as though musing. In a bush beside the swimming pool a cement Venus was being born, with the casting seams running frank through her armpits. He frowned at her, then came over.

"Ahk god, I've been killing myself going through all the replies and chasing up John Wiggins about his list." Andrew straightened up and smiled. "I make it 83 guests, if you say ten percent don't show and half the no-replies turn up, so it should be a fairly jolly bash, I think, provided we manage to get the gazebo up and Odd Bins come through with the bloody ice. I was thinking white wine before the food, and then to have people moving over to red. Does that sound right to you?"

"It sounds excellent."

"Good good, I think so."

"And how's the food and preparations and so on?"

"Well Andrew, you never can be one hundred percent sure with these things. I mean there could be a fire in the kitchen, John's blood pressure might suddenly do a somersault, we could have a five-star pile up in the drive with the guests all attacking each other and then ganging together to sue us for damages, someone's little grandchild could toddle off into the bottom of the swimming pool and turn blue oh oh oh — but — and the list of potential catastrophes is endless — but, barring things you can't do anything about, and in spite of Charmian's determination to do nothing until a desperate last minute dash, things are looking about on track. Jenny Wiggins is a fantastic worrygutser but I always say look to the major things you can get wrong, and get those right. The rest is just life's rich tapestry. But these things are always fraught with all sorts of tensions and agony."

My father says things like, The best is the enemy of the good, and, 80% spot on.

Andrew grimaced in the sun.

"We were rather hoping that perhaps if you came you might be tempted to circulate with the wine a little, at the beginning, to help carry things along a bit."

"On my best behaviour?"

"Oh absolutely on your very best behaviour."

"Well I have an audition on Monday for —"

"Oh how exciting — what for?"

"Well I'm not too sure about the part. It's for a Spanish touring company called Feist —"

"My god!"

"I know — who are doing these Renaissance Spanish Commedia and taking them round Britain"

"Lope de Vega?"

"No, well, the one I'm up for is by a man called Pedro Calderon de la Barca. I think it's basically a conflict of honours drama which they're redoing as northern youth-gangs and taking it round traditionally 'non-theatre' towns."

Andrew cocked his head and pulled two little quotes in the air, two little inverted commas. He always speaks as though he's presenting on tv. I don't know if they taught him that at LAMDA, or if like my sister's luck it's something that descends.

"Very noble, very improving."

"Yes, quite. Er we think the underclasses will be elevated out of crime by Shakespeare … er no, we're doing Pedro Calderon de la Barca."

"Oh ha-ha. We're doing Pedro Sandelon de la Carca."

"Yes, that's right. So on Monday I have to present them with anger —"

"And who's the translation by? Will it be in verse?"

"I actually don't know about that —"

"Ted Hughes has done some stunning translations of Aeschylus' Oresteia."

"Ah, yes. Well on Monday I have to present them with anger, which means that before then I have to find an angry monologue and prep it. I want to do something in verse to show them I can speak it. But for your party I was saying to Gaby that we could come for a few hours in the afternoon, but we might have to skip out a little early, so we might come up a little light on the cleaning up. I hope that's alright."

"Oh not at all I daresay we'll manage — I mean the clearing up that's the easy part. It's when the guests are here that you really want the extra pair of hands. No no, if it's for Sandron de la Vega then I say go for it, go for it. Show them anger."

He went back in, shaking his head and nodding.

"Ah darling!" He said. "Andrew has an audition on Monday but will come for the earlier part of the party and circulate with wine."

"Ah," she said. He went on past. My mother was standing at the entrance to the garden with a bottle of washing-up liquid in her hand. It's funny what's happening to her eyes as she gets older — her cheeks have started falling and left them wider, and clearer. "Andrew," she called. "Andrew, I think we should lubricate the ends with this before we put them in. You remember we had such a fearsome struggle to get them out again last time." She held aloft the washing-up liquid. It shone chatoyant yellow in a bill of sun, and threw behind a spectral warp of its body, dovetailing into the bark of the May tree.

So we put it together like that. It was nice to have the light lowering as we worked, and to watch the shadows reaching. It was nice to concentrate on an edifice that would stand ceiled for two days and then disgown, and unrail itself from my mind. I was thinking about the jury service I had done that week and how I'd put an eighteen year-old Jamaican boy into prison. I was thinking about the judge who had quipped that he too had a red BMW, which we were all about to find terrifically funny, when I related it over tea. I was thinking about how ours was only the burden of proof, and not that of justice. The ground was harder that day than in March, and as I hammered in the pegs some held fast, and some cracked the earth and riddled loose in their fault. She had said I hope you're happy now, as we left court. His girlfriend this is. She had screamed it. She had screamed I hope you're happy now.