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Chapter 1, Arguing With Henry

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Arguing With Henry

By Niall Hunter

Published by Niall Hunter at

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Copyright 2010 Niall Hunter

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Arguing With Henry by Niall Hunter

Cover image, Ruth Hunter

Chapter 1

Perusing Fat is for Failures by ‘Europe’s number one dieting expert Jan Simpleton’ (wearing a rather worrying pair of spotty leggings on the front cover), Henry Flanagan, who was fat and a failure, was troubled by her qualifications listed on the back cover. Dr Jan Simpleton, NZ, Dip. Cpth, BZ, Ph.F, and, to cap it all ExZF. It probably, thought Henry, spelt a real word in Polish.

Anyway, Jan had apparently given countless thousands the gift of life and the gift of health. Not through being a minor deity, or a cardiac surgeon, but by ‘giving troubled people a simple guide to a new existence, a healthful Nirvana. ‘Now she is ready to give her gift to you’.

Henry, having taken a day off work, was in the local park, which was on a hill and cold, even for September. His hiking boots slightly spattered with dog shit, he was sitting on a bench from which one minute beforehand he had had to remove a recently used syringe with the toe of his boot. His four-year-old daughter Chloe was busily swinging; on a swing, that is, not from the noose which Henry often imagined placing around her neck. She was chanting one of her own compositions – an interminable dirge with little rhyme but much assonance about her teddy bear and his troublesome bowel movements. The teddy bear in question was called Pants and most of Chloe’s songs involved him losing his eponymous underwear.

Henry strained to concentrate on the opening chapter of Dr Simpleton’s casebook. ‘Nature is as nature does. Our bodies are temples of nature. Nature is all around us and we have been put on this earth to be with this earth…’ Oh dear. His eyelids started to put on weight as all the buzz words started to chant in unison – Nature, Earth, God (it was beginning to get worrying now), System, Ecosystem, and of course health, health, health, health, not forgetting healthy, health-giving and of course life, which also became life-giving which begat the earth which begat the soil which begat…Henry was comatose.

‘Dad, Dad, wake up wake up. Pleeeeese.’

Two sensations greeted Henry when he opened his eyes – Chloe’s tell-me-it isn’t-true screeching and her moist hands, which she immediately thrust in his face. It was like wallowing in a bucket of snails. The source of the problem was Chloe’s ripped tights and underneath a rather angry looking graze.

‘I fell’, she reported, rather unnecessarily, Henry thought.

He cradled her for a few minutes until the sobbing abated, recognisable speech patterns returned and an ice-cream was requested.

Henry predicted that his wife was going to kill him for this. He knew he should have been watching his daughter. He mused on the concept of parenting, as if making a verb out of a noun could make it any easier. Chloe could not, of course, walk, given the extent of her multiple traumas, so carrying, which included a good deal of jigging about and acute back strain, was required.

He bought plasters and ice-cream in the nearby low-rent ‘shopping center’, which comprised a bookies, a chip shop, a mostly ‘adult’ video store, a chemist, an Italian leather shop and a damp newsagent which only seemed to sell obscure cheapo versions of popular ice-creams- ‘Magnam’, ‘Cornotto’ ‘Chock-o-nice’. His fake choc-ice tasted like mock ice, but Chloe’s Golly Bar (Henry wondered if they were still allowed to call them that. There was a gollywog on the wrapping) was being thoroughly enjoyed all the way down her nice Osh Kosh coat.

The park, Henry observed, was in a poor area. He considered it might have been called a working-class area except that Ireland, which had won three gold medals for self-delusion at the most recent Olympics, did not have a class system. Or not one as sophisticated as that of Britain, just a rather crude division of haves and don’t-have-quite-as-much-but-still-have huge-Visa-bills and contradictory people in between who should be poor but weren’t and who should be comfortable but were struggling.  Poverty, he had read in a dusty report in that morning’s paper, no longer meant being unable to put food on the table, but not being able to afford designer label clothes for your children. Henry reminded himself to tell his saintly wife this later on.

His house was a semi-middle class peninsula from an adjacent posh area jutting nervously into a respectable working-class area. Henry had described it as such to friends when he bought it. Ireland might not have a class system, but he knew he had one in his head.

He opened the hall door and was as always enveloped by the familiar smell of decay. Henry and Stephanie, his wife, had never managed to get rid completely of all the damp, or at least their wallets hadn’t.

Stephanie was apparently out. Probably doing something saintly for the less well-off, Henry whined to himself. He wondered why she didn’t have enough of that during the day as a nurse. But no, he sighed, she spent her time off ministering to the sick, the helpless, the chronically unemployed, the chronically underachieving, the chronically disappointed, the spongers, the cranks who rang radio chat shows and spoke as if their ‘opinins’ were pearls of   undiscovered wisdom. Henry had noticed how these troglodytes carry on prattling regardless when the presenter tried to remind them that they had no brain and should apply Dettol to the grazes on their knuckles. All living in their own private self-perpetuating recurring wet dream of victimization, he had told an unsympathetic Steph the night before. He could hear Steph’s throaty tones quietly reminding him of his fascism and wondering what had happened to the socialist she had met at college. His reply to this usually went along the lines of:

‘What had happened indeed? Got a mortgage, got a life, of sorts. If fascism means being practical, having a bit of commonsense and thinking clearly, then I’m Benito fuckin’ Mussolini. Guilty as charged. Typical Irish attitude, if you disagree with the cosy cowardly consensus, just put a label on the person doing so, or call him a Fascist, a Thatcherite, a queer, or a Brit…Thatcher said one of the best things ever once: “There’s no such thing as society, only people”. Now someone may have written that for her but it just about sums everything up doesn’t it? “Society” is used as an excuse for everything we feel powerless to deal with. “I have piles – it’s Society’s fault”.’

Usually at that stage of the argument Stephanie would interrupt him with some inconvenient facts about poverty, unemployment, GNP, the banana crop in Antigua etc etc and Henry would go off in a huff.

Henry was standing in the hall wondering, as usual, what to do next, and not feeling like doing it. Then, a shock. Christ, where was Chloe? He dashed to the front door and found her in the small garden busily eating berries off a bush. Non-edible ones of course, he noticed, as he scooped the congealed mush out with his fingers amid shrieks.

‘You’ll live love. Calm down now and I’ll wash your face.’

Henry knew the berries did not cause any adverse events because he had eaten a few of them one night three months previously, when, coming home very drunk, he had fallen in the garden, looked up, saw the berries and decided to snack.

Chloe began a seamless and heart-sinking whine to the effect that she didn’t, as ever, want to. With Chloe, the latter proviso applied to just about everything. So up they went to the condensation-ridden bathroom, a facecloth was procured and more shrieks followed.  Henry pondered how great it was that you could get kids to do things by pure physical force at this age, and then felt guilty for thinking like a child-abuser. Henry’s eardrums had nearly burst by the time he had finished the ablutions and Chloe had thrown herself on her bed, ‘Pants’ looking down disconcertingly, from a shelf, proudly sporting his fluorescent underwear.

Henry gently closed the child’s bedroom door to muffle the sobbing noises. He calculated that he had some time to himself before Chloe emerged from her bedroom, so he would watch some old film on the telly.

He realised, however, that he needed to wash. There were certain odours he wished to remove.

Henry, having disrobed, shivered as his belly quivered and he waited for the usually brown water to emerge from the rusty shower unit.

Nothing. Henry verbally fucked the plumber to hell and back. A bath it must be then. Mercifully, the taps worked OK, well just about, after three minutes of gagging and sporadic spurts. This reminded him of something. He hauled himself into moderately hot water. The ominous belly quivered as he flannelled his privates with gusto. He had put three different types of bubble bath and some disinfectant in the water. He saw Dr Simpleton’s book sticking out of his wax jacket hanging on the bathroom door.

He knew he didn’t need some crank tract to help him diet. He just needed to stop eating as much, and to exercise, or even move with some vigour, occasionally, like by foot from the house to the newsagents sixty yards down the road when he was buying fags, the Irish Times and the Daily Telegraph every morning. He had gone back on the fags recently when he discovered that giving them up made him put on even more weight.

He remembered his first taste of Major Extra size in the toilets at school. It had of, course made him sick.

Craving nicotine and artificial flavouring and colouring, he made a quick cold journey down to the kitchen clad in a holey hotel towel, fished the fags out of the quaint yet useless larder, poured some yellow powder into a mixing bowl, added milk and whisked with an electric beater for two minutes. He pushed open Chloe’s bedroom door on the way back to the bathroom and saw she was sleeping.

Back in the bath, he began to purr as he surveyed in front of him on the plastic soap rack, twenty slightly damp Rothmans, a lighter, and the dessert.  Fag he thought. Then whip flavoured by smoke. Followed by wank, perhaps. No, he was not really in the mood.

The front door was opened with some force. Henry hated when people opened doors too forcefully. It was, of course ‘the’ wife. Henry expected her to give out about a) Him, for using the bathroom as a restaurant, and for being him. b) Chloe’s cut knee, which he just realised he had failed to attend to when they got home from the park, c) Her work, the voluntary or paid variety, or both.

‘Are you in there?’ Stephanie called from the landing.

‘No, your husband has eloped with the check-out girl from Tescos, I’m Darth Vader, I was just in the neighbourhood and felt like a wank, so I thought I’d use your bathroom, Mrs Flanagan, is that OK?’

Stephanie entered the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and brought the palms of her hands to her face, massaging it gently.

He felt he had better ask The Question.

‘How was work?’

‘Same old shite at the project. Maureen as usual went over my head about the fund-raising campaign, and Dick just doesn’t seem to care that she does this all the time. It’s hard for me not to sound like a bitch-on-wheels but if we can’t work together, we’re not going to get anywhere…’

Ah yes, the housing project. Homeless Ireland. Henry let Steph’s soothingly fractious soap opera wash over him like the soapy water lapping against his belly, while he said ‘mmm’ and ‘really’. Voluntary organisations he hated because they made him feel guilty. He believed they had very little to do with helping the less fortunate and all to do with spoon-feeding the egos of those involved. Stephanie had not appreciated it when he had said this to her in a recent moment of lucidity, and indeed, drunkenness. This was just after he had sampled the berries in the front garden. She told him he was too lazy and feckless to get involved in any way with charitable work, so he cloaked his lack of commitment in pseudo-social comment. This, of course, was true, Henry agreed. Well he didn’t really think it was true but couldn’t come up with a decent counter-argument.

What was the point of husbands and wives arguing anyway? So what if someone won? There was no referee to hold up the victor’s arm. He alternated his gaze from the fags to what he could see of Stephanie’s head. He noticed the odd grey hair. Henry had always thought that Steph looked a bit like Audrey Hepburn. Stephanie eyed Henry’s bath accessories.

‘Instant whip?’

‘That would be nice dear, except that I left the equipment at the office.’

‘Hmm. butterscotch,’ she licked the finger she had dipped into the bowl and went downstairs.

Something wrong here, Henry thought as he carefully lit his cigarette, drew deep and let the poison hit his lungs with a tingle. Then, from downstairs: ‘You do know Chloe has a cut knee?’

Henry pulled the plug. Tomorrow, he remembered, was Saturday and he had a date.

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Written by SOKNH

April 24, 2010 at 6:18 pm

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