Freedom Like a Shopping Cart is available for download on Amazon, but to whet your appetite, here’s the first chapter for free…
Matlock had slept with his best friend’s girlfriend and he hated himself for it, not because she was his best friend’s girlfriend, but because she was Julie Carver. There is an obnoxious English joke that has the definition of a leisure centre in Cardiff being a sheep tied to a lamp post. Tenby had its own variation, the definition of a leisure centre being Julie Carver.
It was not bright, and the sky was a uniform dry grey, and yet Matlock squinted in pain as he emerged from the darkness of the house. He never stayed until morning at parties, for purely selfish reasons, but he had failed to follow the rule that night as he had been very drunk – so drunk that he had slept with Julie Carver. But he had managed to extricate himself early enough to avoid any responsibility for cleaning up.
It was a Friday morning in late July in the outskirts of Tenby. The houses that lined the street were modern, semi-detached, and evenly spaced with pleasant gardens. The road was smooth and clean. Matlock walked the 400 yards to the bus stop, every step jarring through his fragile body and sending floods of nausea pouring over him. He lowered himself onto the wall and moaned at the inescapable horror of hangover and regret.
Alex, Matlock’s best friend was toiling up the hill towards him, swinging his arms, his breathing audible from afar, and demonstrating a speed and eagerness that proved he had been to no party; he had been babysitting.
‘Wanker,’ thought Matlock. This was supposed to be his best friend; he snorted with derision: ‘A best friend who left his hideous slag of a girlfriend uncontrolled!’
Alex approached grinning. ‘Alright Matlock? Good party?’
‘Did Julie have a good time?’
Matlock wanted to laugh, then to scream at Alex to fuck off. He shrugged again.
‘Not feeling so great eh?’ Alex chuckled.
‘No, no I’m not Alex.’
Alex failed to notice the undisguised contempt in his voice and continued to speak, ‘I’m going up there now so I’ll see you later’.
Matlock nodded, well aware that Alex would find out what had happened, and not particularly caring. He had a vague recollection of Alex’s sister tugging at him and screeching, ‘Matlock, what the fuck are you doing? Alex is your best friend!’ He also recalled that he had poured beer over her head sending her away in tears.
An old woman joined him at the bus stop. He raised his aching head in preparation to greet her with a nod, but she declined to acknowledge him; she seemed to be uncomfortable and resentful of his presence. She stood at the edge of the pavement, her back rigid, with a slight rocking motion, clutching her handbag with grim determination and drawing her mouth into a tight, colourless pucker.
‘Well fuck you then,’ thought Matlock, almost aloud. The old woman had no grounds to hate him; he was simply slightly scruffy nineteen year old slouched on a wall, and she deemed that enough. She had surely labelled him a thuggish, drug-taking lay-about. So Matlock returned her hatred, his was for her genuine rudeness and prejudice. He wanted to spit on the floor but resisted doing so, knowing that it would only help to bolster her warped opinion of him.
She was wearing a long, greyish-blue coat which came halfway down her stockinged calves, her feet were clad in worn blue shoes; her dyed and permed hair was covered by a grey scarf and she clutched a blue handbag. Matlock briefly considered that although he had lived in Tenby for six years he had never before seen this woman, almost certainly another resident. He had no idea who she was or of what her life entailed, and he was glad. In the distance he heard the unhealthy sound of a bus changing gear.
Tenby lay in Pembrokeshire in West Wales. It was a small seaside town that seemed to have escaped from Cornwall or Devon and bolted across the Bristol Channel to cower behind the cloak of Caldey Island. Caldey Island was a long, level strip of land a mile offshore to the South. It shielded Tenby from the sea, allowing it only a neat, framed view, as if such a vast spectacle as the open ocean would be too much for the fragile sensibilities of the little town. Tenby was an attractive place with a harbour, medieval walls, and crooked streets, and with its seaward edge gilded with golden sand; it made its living from tourism.
Tenby’s streets became largely dormant in winter, as if the town was some great deciduous tree. But from Easter onwards they bloomed with a vast array of gift shops, craft shops, beach shops and so on, each with its outer wall adorned by buckets and spades and inflatables, like grotesque and bulbous fruit. During the summer season the streets carried the tourists, like a great aimless and lazy river of overweight and sunburnt flesh, and each year, as they swilled around the base of the old walls, the town cursed them. It looked upon the shops, the buckets and spades, the inflatables, the useless gifts and tacky souvenirs, the lack of real, practical produce; it looked upon the visitors – they were not polite and subtle, moving quietly amongst the residents and pouring money into the pockets of the butcher, the baker and the road sweeper. They were rude and selfish, an affliction crawling over the body of the town like so many maggots. The town cursed them, and then welcomed them back, for like every other resort, Tenby was a prostitute.
Matlock lived in the west in the broad hem of modern housing and caravan parks that besieged the old town. Inland to the north was the bland, green farmland of Pembrokeshire and to the east, across Carmarthen Bay was the Gower Peninsula. It loomed towards Tenby like an index finger raised in insult by a great fist: the knuckles of the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons, the digits of the valleys and the industrialised coast. They were giving Tenby the finger because Tenby was nice.
It was only nice. It was not paradise, and it did not pretend to be. It perceived itself as it was, which was nice. As it was nice it could do little with its inhabitants; it could not spit their brutalized beings angrily at the world as the Valleys did, yet neither could it invigorate them, raise them in a paradise. So it simply suckled them on an anaesthetic niceness, reducing them to a state of torpidity.
Tenby was nice and Matlock hated it.
The single deck bus drew into view from around a corner three hundred yards away, and laboured towards them. Matlock drew himself up from the wall with considerable effort. His movement seemed to trigger an increase in the old woman’s discomfort; she edged forward onto the very brink of the pavement, her rocking motion became clearly visible, her mouth almost disappeared and her grip on the handbag became a quivering vice.
Matlock was astonished by her behaviour and shook his head as the bus drew up. It halted its bulk with an agonised groan and the hydraulic doors drew open, giving a breath-like hiss. The old woman’s composure broke; she had created such tension that now, like an overinflated tire, she had burst. She stumbled forward onto the step and floundered up towards the driver, struggling to break her own iron grip from the handbag. Matlock eyed her with contemptuous pity, but then became aware of a figure rounding the corner from which the bus had come. It was out in the road, its arms swinging, and as it caught sight of Matlock it broke into a run. Matlock’s hangover fell away in an instant as terror struck him; even from a distance Alex’s expression was visible, looming large as he pounded over the tarmac. Matlock looked back into the bus, the old woman was fumbling with her purse; his hands twitched as he gathered his own fare.
‘Matlock you fucking cunt!’
The roar came with such force that Matlock gasped involuntarily with fear. The old woman was now standing at the top of the steps slowly dropping her change into her purse. Quivering in agonised impatience he attempted to reach around her while eying the approaching figure through the back window. Finally she moved, and he paid and ran to the back seat, kneeling on it and facing back, his palms pressing the glass. He heard the door slide shut but the bus remained stationary: the driver was sorting the change. Matlock stared, aghast in terror, Alex seemed to hover above the ground. He drew alongside the rear of the bus as it finally began to move, and held his position there for a moment before dropping back, arms flailing, mouth forming silent Fs and Cs, and then he dwindled rapidly to a small dot.
Matlock heaved out a great sigh of relief, and turned back around in the chair, slumped into a sitting position. Two rows forward the old woman was twisted towards him, her face contorted with bitter distaste. Matlock stared back for a moment and then spat on the floor.
Matlock was nineteen years old and an only child, and although his parents were both from London, he was born in Yorkshire; his parents were school teachers and were working there. When Matlock was ready to start school, and his mother wanted to go back to work, they had moved to London. They lived in Stoke Newington, in a cul-de-sac of terraced houses with small back gardens.
Sometimes his parents would take him into the city on the Tube, to the museums, or to Trafalgar Square. The Tube seemed like magic; a small box which hurtled through black and empty space to miraculously transport its cargo to a new location. Matlock’s awareness of London was not of one huge city, but of a series of independent, isolated islands, or planets even, accessible only by the Underground. You could, it seemed, go anywhere on the Tube. When Matlock looked at a tube map he saw first the great bundled knot of the city, crammed against the river, and then the outliers, the furthest ends of the spokes. He wondered who lived at these distant outposts of the city, of civilisation, and wondered at the strange, foreign names; Cockfosters, Epping, Upminster, Morden, Watford, and the mysterious loop of Heathrow. Matlock longed to explore them, to pioneer into these wildernesses. But when he was thirteen his father took a job as a head teacher in the southwest of Wales.
They had come to Tenby in the summer. The weather had been good and Matlock had been allowed to go where he chose, spending long days on the beach and making new friends. In the autumn he had started at the local comprehensive school, a slightly tatty red brick building near his home, and enjoyed it. For two or three more years he loved the summers, wandering the beaches, the bustling town and the caravan parks with his friends, conversing loudly with as many indicators that they were local as possible, and showing off to girls on holiday. But by the time he was sixteen he hated it.
Matlock was his surname. He had never liked his first name and had insisted on its not being used since he was very young. He had first been addressed as ‘Matlock’ by a stern teacher and had adopted it eagerly. For a time his parents tried to keep his first name in use but his guard never dropped and its utterance invariably led to a tantrum. Sometimes, people made the error of foreshortening ‘Matlock’ to ‘Mat’. He refused to answer to it; his name was Matlock.
He had finished school with nine good GCSEs, and had finished college with three bad A levels. He had always accepted that he would go to university, but when he finally finished his education and looked at the poor grades, the worthless culmination of fourteen years, he decided he really did not want to. His frustrated parents tried to convince him to go, or to re-sit his A levels but he refused. When they asked him what he wanted to do he shrugged. His father suggested that he went travelling for a year or two; he shrugged and found a job in a pub in Tenby. He worked, he watched television, he watched people he knew drift away, and he watched those who remained become increasingly annoying to him. Now he found himself in the middle of another summer and still without a plan.
Matlock huddled in the corner of the bus as it wound through the town, with his face pressed to the glass looking out at the surreal, still morning. Somebody sat down alongside him.
He turned in surprise. ‘Oh hi Jacqui.’ He had been at school and college with Jacqui, and she was one of the few people in Tenby who he still liked. She lived in a flat with her boyfriend Mark, and she worked in the leisure centre at the western end of the town. She was quite short, with straight brown hair and a wide smile.
‘Did you go to that party then?’ She paused and looked him up and down, ‘Yeah you did, you look rough!’
Matlock rolled his eyes, ‘Thanks Jacqui’.
She laughed, ‘I was going to go but I’ve got another job now.’
‘What, did you quit your old one?’
She shook her head, ‘No, I’m just doing some evenings waitressing in Mark’s place.’ Mark worked as a barman in the pub opposite the one where Matlock worked. ‘Y’know, just to get a bit of extra cash while I can. Anyway I was there last night and I had to work this morning too so I couldn’t go’.
Matlock suddenly felt very sorry for her, working two jobs, struggling to pay the rent, but then he supposed she was happy.
After a moment she spoke again: ‘I saw Alex this morning, he didn’t go.’ She paused for emphasis and then hissed, ‘But Julie did! That’s got to be a recipe for disaster!’ She stopped again; each time she finished speaking the corners of her mouth would sidle across to the edges of her face forming a big grin. Matlock said nothing. She waited for a moment and then prompted, ‘So, did she sleep with anyone?’
He tried not to flinch and remained silent.
She sat smiling until realisation slowly dawned. ‘Oh Matlock! You didn’t? Alex is your best friend!’ But her tone was more of pity than reprimand.
Matlock drooped further into his seat and said with sorrow and regret, ‘I was just so drunk, and you know what she’s like… it’s… it’s just…’ He tailed off, sounding apologetic. ‘Anyway he’s an idiot to go out with her, everyone knows what she’s like’.
‘What if he finds out?’ she asked, and then read Matlock’s expression again: ‘Oh, he has.’
Jacqui sighed and he turned, to her, with a pleading tone, ‘You know I’m just so fed up; I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not going to university, I just sit around doing nothing, or I work at my shitty job, then I go and get pissed at the weekend. Nearly everyone from our year’s gone away and I’m starting to hate most of the people who are still here, I don’t even like Alex anymore.’
Jacqui frowned with concern, ‘Oh Matlock!’ She reached across and hugged him. ‘Why don’t you do something if you’re so fed up, you must have some money saved, why don’t you go travelling, or go and live somewhere else for a while?’
He shrugged, ‘I dunno, I could, but I just don’t know what or where, I can’t seem to get motivated to do anything.’
‘Well I don’t suppose life around here’s going to be much fun for you now is it?’
He shrugged again and they remained silent until they reached his stop.
‘Thanks Jacqui,’ he said as he got up; ‘You know, when I said about not liking the people who are still here? Well I didn’t mean you.’
Her smile widened, ‘I know.’ She called to him as he walked down the aisle, ‘Matlock!’ – he looked back – ‘take care.’
His parents were both out, and he was glad of the empty house for he did not feel like talking. He showered and changed his clothes, and feeling free from hangover, he ran sideways down the stairs. He had to work that evening but for now his time was his own. He made toast and tea and moved into the living room, switching on the television before sitting down. He relished the idea of a day spent watching TV. He crunched his toast, eagerly transfixed by the two polished hosts sitting on a couch discussing fame with a celebrity so minor that Matlock had never even heard his name.
The living room was immaculate, its walls fresh white, the curtains crisp, the pale carpet deep and clean. The coffee table and mantelpiece, with his mother’s prize possession – a leaping dolphin in cut glass which had belonged to her grandmother – upon it were free from dust and the bookshelves were neatly ordered. Matlock’s mother left the house at eight each morning and usually returned at about 5.30. He was not quite sure when she cleaned, having never actually seen her in the process of doing so, but he wondered if it was done very early in the morning.
There was a break in the programme and he glanced around the room; he rarely paid attention to his home, but when he did it seemed strangely alien to him. He looked at the clean surroundings and wondered if he really did live there. Sometimes he looked at his parents and wondered if they really were his parents, if he really knew them, if he really cared. His parents loved Tenby. His father was head teacher of a primary school, and his mother was a head of department in the secondary school. They did not go on holiday any more, preferring to take walks around the Pembrokeshire coast or an occasional a weekend in Snowdonia. Matlock despaired of them.
Sometimes they would say to him how glad they were that he had had the chance to grow up in a wonderful environment with the kind of freedom he had. Matlock clenched his teeth at this. He did not hate his parents, but as they had adopted Tenby and moulded themselves into it they had begun to seem like strangers to him.
He was brought from his reverie by a sharp rap on the door, and reluctantly he drew himself from the television and the results of a viewer poll on abortion – a subject that the presenters had miraculously injected with a degree of jolly triviality. He was still holding his plate of toast and looking back at the television as he opened the door. Alex was standing on the doorstep. For a moment they stared at one another before each made a move. Alex hurled himself forward and Matlock dropped the toast and made a grab for the door, forcing all his weight against it. Alex and the door collided and struggled for the threshold. Alex slipped down, with his head and shoulders pressed against the wood. Matlock pushed with all his might and finally forced him back. Alex’s hand caught under the base of the door and Matlock could hear him swearing in pain and anger, he released a little pressure and the hand withdrew. There was a moment’s silence before a loud machine gun hammering on the door
resumed. Matlock stood staring at the door and listening to the cursing. Eventually there was quiet. He looked around nervously and then heard muffled banging above the sound of the TV. The living room had large windows which opened onto a patio; fortunately they were closed. Alex was drumming both fists against the glass, he was clearly screaming loudly but the double glazing blocked the sound. Matlock found his red faced silence comical, but he moved backwards in alarm as Alex picked up a large plant pot containing a dying geranium. He took two steps backwards, lifted the pot above his head and hurled it at the window. Matlock flinched in expectation of a great crash, but all that came was a dull thud; the plant pot had bounced of the window and hit Alex in the face. Matlock stared open mouthed as the broken halves of the pot fell away leaving Alex with a large lump of soil and a sickly geranium in lieu of a face. He tottered backwards across the lawn, swayed from side to side and collapsed into the embrace of two large bushes. For a moment Matlock thought he was dead but as he peered nervously through the glass he saw him moving feebly. Relieved he began to laugh, but was stopped by sickening horror as he looked to the floor. In his reflexive backward movement he had dislodged his mother’s precious glass dolphin from the mantelpiece; it had exploded on the hearth like a silvery firework into thousands of fragments across the carpet.
In that instant Matlock knew that he had to leave Tenby. He had to leave Tenby immediately.