It’s still dark out when I start reversing the van and see Len crunching down the drive towards me in his slippers and dressing gown, head bowed like he’s walking in the rain. I stop and wind down the window.
He scuffs past, mumbling a blur of words and making a beeline for the front door. I yank the handbrake and hop out to cut him off before he wakes Fi and the kids.
‘Alright there, mate, what’s got you out of bed so early?’
Len triggers the front porch motion sensor. He blinks, frozen in the dazzle of the security light.
‘You okay there, mate?’
His body shivers, his white whiskered jaw chattering. He arches the twig thin fingers of both hands into the air in front of him as if holding something, shaking something.
‘Fuckin’ toilet,’ he says.
His hands squeeze into fists, his face tightens around bared, yellowing teeth
“Fuckin’ shittin’ fuckin’ toilet,’ he says, his voice straining to escape his wheezing chest.
I put my hand on his shoulder. He smells of stale piss and bad drains.
‘Let me help you, Len,’ I say and watch as the spell lifts and he finally sees me.
‘Jake?’ he says.
‘Jake,’ I say.
He smiles at me. Then clouds return to his eyes.
‘Fuckin’ toilet,’ he says.
I put my arm around his shoulders and we start back up the drive. Reckon I can drop him back, as it’s only down the road, and head off from there.
‘Let’s get you home and you can tell me all about it on the way,’ I say, helping him up into the passenger seat of the van.
In the time it takes me to walk round the van, the smell from Len has filled the cab. I leave my window down, put the van in gear and reverse out.
Len mutters and rocks in the passenger seat. His eyes peer out through the windscreen flicking this way and that, searching for something and not finding it. I turn right and think about switching on the radio but Len’s house is only halfway up the next street. Len’s face brightens a little as he sees his house. The overgrown lawn and peeling paint on the window frames look out of place in the otherwise tidy row of houses. The front door swings wide open, anyone could walk in.
‘Fuckin’ bastard toilet,’ Len says as I help him out the van. His body feels papery; the fabric of his housecoat has more substance.
‘What’s the problem with the toilet? I’ve got the tools in the van. I could have a look for you.’
Len stops at the door to the house.
‘Jake,’ he says, the fog lifting. ‘I’m sorry.’
Not really sure what he is sorry for, I check my watch. Should be okay. As long as it isn’t too big a job, I shouldn’t be too late.
The smell of the house swamps me as I follow Len in. Sweat, shit and something like rotten meat. The hall is dark, the curtains pulled closed at the top of the stairs. Len starts the slow climb up. I flick the landing light on and follow.
‘So what’s the problem with the toilet, Len?’
He mumbles something I can’t hear.
‘Sorry mate, what was that?’
He stops on the stairs in front of me and turns his head slow, like a turtle. ‘The bloody thing’s blocked.’
‘Not a problem, mate, I can sort that.’
He stares at me blankly then turns and continues up.
At the top of the stairs he stops and stands outside the closed bathroom door, hanging his head. I put my toolbox down on the landing carpet and tug the curtains open. The dawn sun spills through the glass, dust showering down through the beam. Len doesn’t look up or tell me to go in.
I nudge the bathroom door open and raise a hand to catch my gag. The floor of the bathroom is swimming in foul water. Clumps of loo paper sit in the murky water, stained in browns and yellows.
Tears slip down Len’s face, collecting in his whiskers before dripping onto the collar of his pyjamas. I make my voice jolly and steer him back to the stairs.
‘Right, Len mate, let’s get you downstairs and make a cuppa, then I’ll see about sorting the loo.’
The kitchen, a battlefield of dirty pots, smells almost as bad as the bathroom. I sit Len at the table, raise the blind to let some light in, and set about finding the kettle. Looking at the state of things I decide not to make myself a drink. While the kettle boils, Len rocks and mumbles in his seat. In the gap of his housecoat I see food stains on his pyjamas.
Time was, Len would always be well turned out. ‘Can’t abide scruffiness,’ he told me once, years back now, when I was seeing his Tracy. Len complained about the ‘scruffy apeths’ on the telly. He’d sit in his chair and grumble from behind the local headlines as Tracy and I revised our exams, Dexy’s jigging to C’mon Eileen on the TV. ‘Look smart,’ he told me. I made sure I turned up in a decent shirt after that.
I pass Len his tea in the cleanest mug I can find but a skin of scum still floats on the top. Is it really less than two years since his Joan died? Looking at the state of the house, of Len, it seems like such a short time for things to get so bad.
‘Does Tracy not come round to see you?’
Len looks up, eyes eager and hopeful.
‘Is Tracy coming?’ He puts his cup down on the table and the shaking starts again. His head nods up and down. ‘Is Tracy coming?’
‘Maybe later,’ I say, ‘why don’t you tell me about the toilet?’
Len’s face brims with anger and he starts again with the ‘Fuckin’ toilet.’
‘Hold on, Len,’ I say and crouch down to look him in the eye, ‘tell me what happened.’
‘It’s that doctor,’ he says and slams a fist onto the table, the jolt slopping the tea into a puddle around his cup. His eyes are clear now, focused. ‘Sometimes I can’t shit. Sometimes I can’t stop. He’s done tests. Stuck stuff up my arse. That barium bollocks. The useless bastard still isn’t sure what’s what. He told me to keep a diary.’
Len stares, as if seeing me in the room for the first time.
‘Of my bowel movements.’
We stare at each other for a minute. I don’t know who starts first but we both laugh at this.
‘A diary of my shit. Bloody mental, right?’ Len says. ‘And they say I’m going funny in the head.’
Len stops laughing, picks up his dripping mug of tea. He takes a sip and spits it out across the table.
‘You forgot the bloody sugar,’ he says, pointing at the bowl on the cluttered worktop.
I pass him the bowl and he spoons in seven sugars. He sips the tea again, adds three more and seems satisfied.
‘You sit there, drink your tea and I’ll sort out upstairs,’ I say.
Len nods and begins to slurp his tea as I head off to the van to grab my phone from the glove compartment and my toolbox from the back. On my way back up the stairs I press call on my work number and tell them I’m going to be late. ‘Family emergency,’ I say though Len isn’t. Still, I can’t leave him like this.
A dark stain arches into the hall carpet where it meets the bathroom lino, the water soaking over the gripper separating the two. I step into the bathroom and the water laps lightly around the soles of my work boots. The bathroom suite is so grime-ridden it’s hard to tell the original colour. A bucket sits inside the shower stall. I don’t need to look to know what Len’s been using it for.
Dried yellow stains splatter the toilet seat, while in the bowl, just visible through the pool of rank water threatening to flood the lip, streaks of shit cling to the sides. The shades of yellow and brown remind me of Len’s teeth. I open the window wide, balance my toolbox across a corner of the bath and flip the lid.
Gloves on, I scoop the excess water from the toilet with a manky cup from the sink, slopping it into the shower bucket. The water dissolves some of the filth inside, releasing more of the foul smell. I plunge the toilet a few times, waiting to feel something move in the vacuum but there’s nothing, so I uncoil the flexible cleaning tool and insert it into the u-bend. I rotate this but something is stopping the tool from turning fully in the pipe. I stab it down and feel the blockage shift slightly round the u-bend. I shove it again and watch the water level in the bowl fall. I flush the loo a couple of times, then empty the bucket into the bowl and flush again. Happy things are moving in the right direction, I head back downstairs.
Len is still sat at the kitchen table.
‘That’s all fixed for you, just need to check the drain,’ I say. ‘That room’s going to need a bloody good clean, mind.’
Len looks up as if seeing me for the first time.
‘Is Tracy with you?’ he says, then turns his head fast about, searching.
‘No, Len, she’s not.’
‘Where’s Tracy?’ he says, rocking again, his arms wrapped around himself.
I crouch so he can meet my eyes. ‘I’ll call her for you.’
I find the address book, smothered in dust, by the phone in the hall and put Tracy’s number in my mobile before going back outside to fetch the drain tool from the van.
‘You’ve reached Tracy, leave a message,’ the phone says.
‘Tracy, it’s Jake. You need to come see your dad.’ From inside the house I hear Len swearing loudly about the toilet. ‘Christ, Tracy how long has it been since you’ve seen him? Have you seen the state of him? The state of the house? Call me when you get this, or better still, get yourself round here and help the poor bugger.’
I snap the phone shut, stuff it in my pocket and set about lifting the drain cover round the side of the house. In the weak stream of effluent lies a small black book. I lift it out with a gloved hand and flick through pages soaked yellow and brown. In the centre, near the spine, a circle of pure white paper cores the book where the filthy water hasn’t reached. The last entry is three days ago. The pages are scrawled with brief notes. I make out words like ‘lots of straining today’ and ‘nothing’ and ‘some blood and pain’ in clear black ink on the white semicircle of each page. On the stained parts of the pages the ink has smudged into a thick black unreadable trails.
‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’
Something smacks me hard in the back of the head, knocking me off balance. I sprawl forward, my foot catching on the manhole lip and I roll to the side to stop my left leg dropping into the drain hole. Looking up from where I lie on my back I see Len stood over me, fists clenched. He is wearing just his pyjamas now. Food stains paint the front of them, sauces dried to the colour of blood. The knees of the trousers are mud stained and dark browns and yellows streak down from the gusset.
‘You sniffing round my Tracy again? I warned you what’d happen if I caught you round here.’
I find my feet and stand, rubbing the back of my head. Len still packs a punch. His eyes tell me he is back over twenty years to when Tracy and I were doing A levels, back to when he thought what happened was my fault.
‘You stay away from my girl.’ Len shakes as much from the cold of the early morning as the anger he is reliving.
‘Len, I -’ I start to say but he shuffles a few hurried steps toward me and swings again and, like years ago, I can’t explain to him that Trace was the one who fucked everything up. I step back and he flails at the air and tries again. I retreat until my back is at the fence.
‘I’m not going to fight you, Len,’ I say, ‘this was a long time ago. Somewhere in there you know I wasn’t to blame. Tracy told you the truth, years ago. You told me that.’
Len swings again and I dodge the fist easily. The next punch I catch and pull him toward me as gently as I can with him struggling. I still have the diary. He strains to free himself but simply doesn’t have the strength to get away.
‘Len, it’s okay. I stayed away like you told me.’
His eyes rage just like they did years ago. I could try to fill him in on the time since then – Tracy telling him the truth, his apology to me, bad feeling fading over beers down the Feathers when we bumped into each other at the end of a working week – but he won’t hear me.
I wave the diary under his nose.
‘You stuffed this down the toilet and blocked the bloody system,’ I say.
Len’s eyes cloud and his body goes limp. I chuck the diary down next to the drain and help him over to the garden bench.
‘Fuckin’ toilet,’ he says.
‘Fuckin’ toilet,’ I say.
I fetch a coat for him from the house and we sit outside in the fresh air for a bit, the day starting without us.
‘Is Tracy coming?’
‘Soon, Tracy’s coming soon,’ I say.