And there was that time that Johnny and Garth went to the moon. Johnny had passed all his moon exams with flying colours, they said that he was the best moonanaut there’d ever been, and Garth hadn’t even taken an exam, but he stowed on board the rocket anyway. And as Johnny steered his rocket straight out of the atmosphere into deep space he heard a plaintive little oink come from his satchel, and there was Garth, and Johnny was so pleased to see him! Johnny and Garth set foot upon the moon, and they bounced up and down a bit because there wasn’t much gravity. And then Garth remembered he’d forgotten to pack any sort of spacesuit, and so he couldn’t breathe, and his fat pink face turned quite puffy and bright red! Johnny was excellent at holding his breath, which was why he was the best swimmer there’d ever been, and could do more lengths in the school pool than anybody else. So he took off his spare helmet and gave it to Garth, and saved Garth’s life, and Garth was ever so grateful. Then they went back into the rocket and got home for tea.
And then there was that time that Johnny and Garth went to the dentist’s. And the dentist said that Johnny had eaten too many sweets and wasn’t brushing his teeth properly, and Johnny said sorry and promised he’d do better, only please don’t give him a filling, and the dentist said he was going to give Johnny a filling anyway. The dentist gave Johnny an injection, and promised it wouldn’t hurt a bit, but it did. And Johnny was told to open his mouth really wide, it would be over in just a few minutes. Johnny wanted to cry, but he wouldn’t – he wouldn’t, because he didn’t want to scare Garth. Because Garth was going in after him, and Garth was going to have twenty fillings, no, a hundred probably – and Garth was such a scaredy, and Johnny just thought, if I screw up my eyes tight and I don’t cry out, so long as I’m brave, then Garth can be brave too. And he was brave, and the filling was done before he knew it, and it felt weird when he stuck his tongue against it, and his bottom lip felt rubbery like the bung in Garth’s bottom. Mummy bought him some sweets because he’d been such a good boy. And Johnny shared them with Garth, although Garth hadn’t been brave during his fillings, Garth had screamed the place down.
Johnny loved Garth best in the whole world, even though he was, frankly, a pig. Johnny would sometimes pretend Garth wasn’t a pig but his brother, because Garth was much nicer than Mark and never gave him Chinese burns. And sometimes Mark was cruel to Garth too, for no reason, and would hide him, or stick him out on the roof where Johnny couldn’t reach, and Garth would get so frightened, and Mark would just laugh. Garth made a much better brother, and Garth liked it that way, and he’d pretend he wasn’t a pig as well. But once in a while Johnny would lose his temper and he would take it out on Garth, he’d say he was nothing but a useless rasher of streaky bacon, and they weren’t going to play together any more. He’d put Garth in the cupboard and slam the door. He always said sorry afterwards, and Garth always forgave him. “It’s all right, Johnny,” he’d say, and he’d give him that strange broken smile he had, “let’s play a game!” Johnny knew Garth must love him best in the whole world too, or else he wouldn’t put up with him.
Johnny had already had his birthday three days ago, but Mummy and Daddy said they’d got him another present. He’d been given so much money by his aunts and uncles and by Granny Reynolds that there was no way Johnny could spend it all at once. So they had bought him a little piggy bank. The pig was pink and fat and its trotters were splayed out as if better to balance when weighed down with coins; there was a little slot on his back, and Mummy demonstrated how Johnny could put a ten piece inside the pig, and how it clattered about its stomach. And just in case Johnny ever wanted to see his coins again, there was a rubber bung on the pig’s underside that could be pulled free with the reverse end of a spoon. “What do you say, do you like it?” asked Daddy. Johnny considered, and then decided he wouldn’t merely like the pig, he would love it. He called him Garth, even though the pig didn’t look much like a Garth.
He had a broken smile. That was because of the day Johnny and Garth had used the bed as a trampoline, and Garth had jumped too high and fallen off the bed on to his face. Half of Garth’s mouth had come off, and Johnny was in tears that evening when Daddy tried to glue it back on but said that it just wouldn’t stick. But, for once, Garth was very brave. “It doesn’t hurt at all,” he said. “In fact, I prefer it this way!” And Johnny decided he preferred the smile that way too, it looked more conspiratorial, like a smirk, like it was Garth asking to play games that might get them into trouble, like it was a smile just for him. Garth also had eyelashes that rubbed off with fingers and spit, and a little corkscrew of a tail that wouldn’t snap off no matter how much Johnny bashed it against the floor. “Try harder, Johnny!” Garth would say, and the end of it got a bit blunted maybe, but that was all.
Johnny took Garth on all his holidays, pressing him up against the car window so he’d get a good view. Garth would sleep with Johnny at night, too, nestling snug in the middle of the spare pillow. Johnny asked Garth what it was like to have all that money rattling around his insides, it was so noisy sometimes, and Garth gave a smirk and said it gave him indigestion, so Johnny prised out Garth’s rubber bung and took all the money and went and bought lots of sweets without telling Mummy or Daddy, and then he got indigestion too.
“I wish you were a pig,” Garth said to Johnny one day. “We’d be proper brothers then.”
“We are proper brothers,” said Johnny.
“Let’s do it for real,” said Garth. So Johnny raised his palm to his mouth, and spat on it, hard. Garth wasn’t able to spit, of course, so Johnny had to do the spit for him. And they pressed hand to trotter, and the spit mingled, Johnny’s spit, and the spit that was sort of Garth’s spit, and their brotherhood was sealed forever.
When it was time for Johnny to go to Big School, he wanted to take Garth with him in his satchel, just as he had when he went to the moon! But Mummy said that school wasn’t a place for pigs. And Garth waited for Johnny all day on his bed, and listened to all his adventures when he got home. Garth had had some adventures too, but he admitted that Johnny’s were much more exciting. Johnny started bringing home new friends from Big School, and for a while they were happy to play with Garth too. But some of them asked whether they could play with Johnny on his own, and Johnny went to their houses so Garth wouldn’t have his feelings hurt.
Some of Johnny’s friends were much better than Garth. They weren’t as reliable, and Alex would sulk if he didn’t win at everything. But Alex also had an Atari games console, and it was worth coming second for getting to play Space Invaders.
When Johnny was twelve, his parents told him he was old enough to have his own bank account. He was taken to meet a nice smiley woman who explained that when he put his money inside her bank it would earn interest. It didn’t seem interesting at all, but Mummy and Daddy looked proud, and bought him an ice cream sundae afterwards.
Mummy gave away Garth to Oxfam, and it took Johnny a couple of weeks to notice. “Where’s Garth?” he said one day, and Mummy explained he’d gone to give pleasure to a little boy who didn’t have real friends and didn’t have an interest earning savings account. “You’re a big boy now,” she said. Johnny thought about crying, but he liked the idea of being a big boy, and so he didn’t.
And a few days later Mummy took him shopping in town for new school trousers. Whilst she queued up at the bank, she agreed that he could wait for her in the toy section of Oxfam. And there he found Garth. “Hello,” he muttered to Garth. He had half a mind to apologise to Garth, but he thought that would look stupid, talking to a toy pig. Garth just sort of smirked at him, and Johnny hoped there was nothing too sad about that smirk, nothing too self-pitying. He’d have stayed with Garth for longer, but that’s when Mummy came into the shop, and Johnny moved away, and felt a little embarrassed.
And there was that time that Johnny and Garth went to the funeral together. Granny Reynolds had died, and Daddy was very sad, and when Johnny asked whether he could take Garth to the service Daddy got cross. So Johnny took him anyway, in his little satchel, with Garth’s snout poking out of the top so he could see what was going on! They watched the ceremony. Johnny knew he’d never see Granny again, and he was sorry for that, she’d been nice. Johnny supposed she was in the box, and wondered why no one liked to mention it, they kept on talking as if she wasn’t there. “I don’t understand any of this,” Johnny whispered down to Garth. “Nor me,” said Garth, and Johnny felt a little better.
John hadn’t thought of the pig in years, not until he was sitting through another funeral. His parents were on either side of him, as if flanking him, as if making sure he couldn’t run away – and Dad was already crying, and Mum was beginning to as well. And there was some vicar saying that Mark had gone to a better place, and that was such bullshit because Mark hadn’t even believed in God, and saying that Mark had died too young, but that was just obvious, wasn’t it? John had been brought back from college for this, and he hadn’t even been allowed to bring his girlfriend. “I think it should be family only,” said Mum, and John said that was such bullshit. But, if truth be told, he wasn’t that sorry his girlfriend hadn’t come, he wasn’t sure they were getting on all that well any more. When he’d told her his brother had died she’d just sort of frozen, and had stuck her bottom lip out. And she’d said, “I don’t know how you want me to react to that.”
John thought of his little pig some time during his father’s eulogy, and remembered how he’d accompanied him to that last funeral he’d sat through. He didn’t think of the pig with any particular nostalgia, the memory didn’t comfort him. It flashed into his head for a moment, just as he was being told to close his eyes and think of his brother he thought of the pig instead – flashed in, then flashed out again, and by the time they were all on their feet singing a hymn John had forgotten all about the pig once more.
His parents said it would be nice if John could stay home with them for a little while, but John wanted to go back to college. “You can at least spend a couple of days,” said Dad. “You can spend a couple of days, and keep us company, and watch television with us, and gave family dinners with us,” said Mum. So he’d give them a couple of days, and they ate dinner around the same table John had sat when he’d just been a kid, and he was made to help with the washing-up afterwards. But then he’d go to his bedroom. It was weird being in his bedroom again, the bed seemed too small and the wallpaper too childish. He’d look through the cupboards and find an old stash of comics, The Beano and Whizzer and Chips, he’d lie there on his too small bed and read them and if his parents called him he’d pretend he hadn’t heard, that he’d been wearing headphones or something.
There was lots of talk about Mark, too much, until Mark seemed even more unknowable than he’d been before. “You do know we love you very much,” Mum and Dad would say to John. “Yes,” said John.
One afternoon Mum asked John if he’d catch the bus into town and pick up some shopping from the supermarket. John did it in poor grace, but he was actually relieved to be out of the house. There was a certain unexpected pleasure to be had wheeling a trolley up and down the aisles, and filling it with tinned vegetables. He didn’t want to go straight home, he thought he’d look around the town first. He peered listlessly into shop windows. He peered into the window of the Oxfam.
There, on the display shelf, right out front, squatted a little fat piggy bank.
John was amused to see it there. It looked just like the one he’d had when he’d been a kid – he supposed it was an antique now, did anyone even use piggy banks any more? He smirked, and the pig smirked right back, with that broken half-mouth it had.
It was then that John realised this wasn’t just any old piggy bank, it was his. And a name popped into his head, as if he’d never really forgotten it.
“Garth,” he said.
Garth seemed to grin back at him in approval.
It was like the pig had only just been given to the charity shop, though John knew it had happened years and years ago. Could it have been sitting here, unsold, for all that time? No, that was ridiculous. If no one had wanted to buy it, Oxfam would eventually have just flung it away, even a charity shop had standards. And even if, by some miracle, it had sat unnoticed and untouched in the same shop for nigh on, what, seven years, it wouldn’t have been sat out front, in prime position, for all the world to see – they’d have buried it somewhere at the back of the shop, surely, amidst all the damaged lampshades and the gramophone records and the cobwebs.
So, this is what must have happened: someone must have bought it all those years ago, perhaps for a little kid of their own. And that kid had now grown up, and the pig was being donated back to the same charity shop it had been bought from. It was a coincidence, of course, but it wasn’t that great a coincidence; in fact, it was rather apt; in fact, almost touching.
John had no intention of going into the shop. He was lugging three bags of groceries, he was getting tired, all he wanted now was to get on the bus home and get back to his comics. And when he went into the shop, he had no intention of buying the pig. “If it’s three pounds or under,” he said, “I’ll buy it, just for a laugh, but not a penny more.” The pig was going for seventeen pounds fifty, the manager seemed very proud of it, and said Garth was a collector’s item. “The mouth’s damaged,” said John, but he felt bad haggling for a toy pig whilst pictures of starving Africans were looking on, and he paid the seventeen pounds fifty, every penny of it.
On the bus home he began to feel like an idiot, like he was the victim of some stupid trick. He took out the pig and looked at it, and ran his fingers over the broken mouth and the stunted curlywurly tail. Turning it upside down, he realised it was missing its rubber bung; you couldn’t have used it as a piggy bank even if you’d wanted to, the money would all fall out. And John felt a sudden surge of real anger, the first proper anger since Mark’s death, and he punched the back of the seat, and some of the other passengers turned to glare at him. He wanted to turn right round and go back to the Oxfam and complain – but he couldn’t be bothered. He wanted to throw the pig away, he’d just leave it on the bus. But he didn’t.
When he got home he took it up to his bedroom quickly, he didn’t want his parents seeing what he’d bought. He put it in the cupboard.
“I thought we could go on holiday together,” said Dad that evening over dinner. “I thought that might be nice, as a family. Nothing too far away, I thought we might rent a caravan or something.” Mum said that sounded like a great idea. John pointed out, quite reasonably really, that he couldn’t afford any more time away from college. “Who’s paying for college?” Dad suddenly said. “Where do you think that money’s coming from?” “Please don’t,” said Mum, and she burst into tears. “Just stop, both of you.” “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Dad told John, “you just do whatever you like.” John didn’t say a word, he went to his room, and he wished he could cry as easily as his parents could, and he tried, he honestly tried, he lay on his bed and screwed up his face, but it didn’t work, and besides, he wasn’t really sure what he wanted to cry about.
When he woke in the morning there was a familiar smell to the room – a bit plasticky, and soft, although plasticky wasn’t really a smell, and nor was soft either, he supposed – and there was something else too, something farmyard, something faintly like shit.
“Johnny!” said Garth. “It is you! I couldn’t be sure, not until you opened your eyes, but they’re the same eyes! Oh, Johnny, how you’ve changed, you’ve got so big and everything! But it’s so good to see you!”
“You’ve changed too. And it’s John, not Johnny.”
“I have changed, I have, I admit it!” laughed Garth. “Age has caught up with me, yuk yuk yuk!” The pig was now full size, and on his hind trotters he stood a full head taller than John. And he’d grown wider, he was no longer merely fat but morbidly obese. He’d greyed too, the Garth John remembered had been as bald as a baby, but now John could see that tufts of hair had sprouted out all over, never enough to give much cover, never enough to suggest that the body had thought this hair project was worth pursuing with, just scrappy little patches every which way, as if Garth had been attacked by a blind barber, and the patches were grey, some of them were even white.
“And what are you wearing?” Because Garth had never worn clothes before; he had always been a proper pig, never anthropomorphised, for all that he had a rubber bung and a slot and could talk and go on adventures. And now he was in navy blue trousers, a navy blue jacket, a striped navy blue tie.
“It’s for the adventure! Some adventures,” said Garth, and he whispered the next bit, as though in confidence, “some adventures need the right clothes. You see? Yuk yuk yuk!” John didn’t know where this yuk yuk business had come from – he supposed it was a laugh, but he didn’t remember Garth laughing that way, and besides, Garth was saying it, it was silly.
“I’ve had enough of adventures,” said John.
And for a moment Garth’s face fell, and his porcine eyes opened wide in sad surprise. And then that broken mouth twisted into a smirk. The smirk that said, who are you trying to kid? And he offered John a trotter. And John took it.
His parents weren’t awake yet, they were sleeping in later and later, John didn’t know what to make of that. So no one was there to see him leave the house with a pig in a suit. “Where are we going?” said John.
“That’s a surprise, Johnny!” And Garth took him to his car.
It wasn’t a very good car. It was old, the windows weren’t electric and it didn’t have a radio, and it was small – Garth had put the driver’s seat back as far as it could go, but he still looked uncomfortable, squashed against the steering wheel.
“You can drive?” asked John.
“Sure, sure, I passed the test.”
“When have you ever passed a test?”
“Ssh for a moment, Johnny, I can’t talk whilst driving. I need to concentrate, okay?” Garth turned the key in the ignition, and put his hooves up on the steering wheel. He took a deep breath. “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre,” he muttered. “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre.” And he lurched the car out into the road.
Only at the traffic lights did Garth dare turn to give John a reassuring smile. “We’re not driving all the way there,” he said. “We’ll get the train. The office doesn’t have a car park, and I don’t like some of those dual carriageways.”
“Office? You’ve got a job?”
“I work in finance,” said the piggy bank. He grinned. “What did you expect?” But with that the lights turned green, the car bolted forward, and stalled, and Garth struggled to get the engine started again whilst all about them other motorists honked their horns angrily. John thought it best not to interrupt.
John bought a ticket at the station; Garth had a season pass. The train was full of commuters, all of them refusing to look at one another; there was nowhere to sit, everyone was packed in tight, John was pressed hard against Garth and he felt some yielding of his plasticky body and he felt too that already the armpits of Garth’s suit were starting to pool with sweat.
No one seemed surprised they were sharing a carriage with a fat pig. Several people tutted, though, that the pig was taking up so much valuable space.
Dozens of workers in smart suits pushed their way through the revolving doors, each one of them wearing a face hard set with teeth gritted. Only Garth seemed excited, and John couldn’t tell whether that was because he had a friend to show off to, or because Garth really loved his job. They crowded into the lift. “We’re on the tenth floor!” said Garth. “We get such a view!”
“Is it all right I’m here? Won’t you get into trouble?”
“There’s a pretty high staff turnover,” said Garth. “If anyone gives you a second glance, just pick up a phone like the rest of us.” He told John that most only lasted a few weeks. “But I’ve been here for years! Longer than anyone! In fact, I’m sort of senior to all the others, I expect!”
The tenth floor was an open plan office; thin flatboard partitions gave the illusion that the cubicles were separated. “That’s Geoff, that’s Pete, that’s Libby. They’re my best friends here!” Geoff, Pete and Libby were already making phone calls, they nodded at Garth noncommittally. “Guys,” said Garth, “this is Johnny, an old friend from way back!”
“It’s John,” said John.
Garth explained his job. It was very simple. He’d be given all these phone numbers, and he had to dial them all up, and speak to whoever might be on the other end. And then Garth would ask them if they wanted money, any money at all, in exchange for talking about any accidents they might have had for which they could claim compensation. “It’s a nice job. Very caring. And you get to chat to such interesting people!” He dialled a number, said a hello, asked politely whether there’d been any recent incidents involving falling over or car crashes. He stopped; he replaced the receiver. He smirked at John. “There obviously wasn’t.”
About half past eleven Garth said to John, “It’s lunchtime! Let’s get going!”
“Come on! We have to get to the pub! Before the eleventh floor beat us!”
The pub was already heaving by the time Garth and John arrived, but there was a table at the back occupied by people John recognised. Garth raised a friendly trotter to them. “Geoff and Libby are here already,” he said. Geoff and Libby were talking, they only looked up when Garth set his haunches down on the table hard between them. “Guys,” he said, “either of you want a drink?”
Geoff and Libby already had drinks. “No, thanks, Piggy,” said Geoff.
“No, Piggy,” said Libby. “Oink oink.”
Garth grinned at John. “Cheap round, can’t be bad! What you having, lager? I’ll get you a lager.”
John sat down next to Geoff and Libby and waited for his drink.
“So,” said Geoff. “How do you know Piggy?”
“Garth,” said John. “Oh, you know. I don’t really. Not well.”
“Was he always like this?” said Libby.
“Maybe,” said John. “I don’t know. Yeah. Yeah.”
Garth came back with a couple of pints of lager on a tray. “You’re sure I can’t get you a drink?” he said to Geoff and Libby.
“Yeah,” said Geoff.
“Yeah,” said Libby.
John sipped at his pint. Garth raised his to his face. It was an awkward business – the pint didn’t grip well in his hooves, he had to clench both of them either side to get purchase on the glass. Having got the drink to head height, Garth took a deep breath, he’d completed stage one of the procedure, on to stage two. And then he stuck his snout into the glass, as deep as it could go, and sucked – and the lager overspilled, of course, it rained down upon the table – and Garth now tilted back his head, and tipped the dregs of his pint towards him, and some of it poured into his mouth, and some of it didn’t.
Garth smacked his lips. “Want another?”
By the time the lunch break was over Garth was a little drunk, and John was positively reeling; he hadn’t been drinking much, not since he’d got back from college, and he realised how much he’d missed the happy deadening sense of being pissed. Being drunk in the office made so much more sense of what everyone was doing, and he listened to the comforting hum of all the phone calls around him, the false enthusiasm and energy, and he began to feel drowsy. He may have closed his eyes for a bit. And when he opened them there was Garth, and Garth was good at his job, John could see how patient and soothing he was, if Garth had ever phoned him he’d have invented an accident just to keep him happy, and Garth raised a trotter to John and John gave him a thumbs up in return.
On the return train journey Garth got them both a seat. John sat opposite, and looked at Garth – his clothes seemed damp, and that may have been the lunchtime lagers, it may have been the sweat that had long ago soaked from the armpits down his back and around his waist. A woman squeezed into the seat next to Garth. For a couple of stops she squirmed around, and kept scowling at Garth, and Garth pretended not to notice – or maybe he was truly unaware, he was gazing at his old friend Johnny and smirking happily after a good day’s work. She said to him, “You’re taking up too much room. You’re too fat. You’re a pig.”
Garth slowly turned to the woman. He seemed to process the information dazedly. Then he raised a hoof to his head, as if to doff his hat, which was ridiculous, he wasn’t wearing a hat, it made him look pathetic. “I do apologise, madam,” he said. “I do apologise for any inconveni… I’m sorry. I’ll stand.”
John said, “Don’t talk to him like that. Don’t you dare talk to him like that.”
“Johnny, it’s all right.”
The woman glared at John unrepentantly. “He’s a fat pig.”
“Just leave him alone. He’s worked hard today. He’s been good. He’s been good.”
“Johnny, I am a fat pig, the dear lady is perfectly correct.”
“He may be a fat pig,” John said. “But you’re a cow. You’re an ugly, selfish old cow.”
And Garth seemed angry. John had never seen Garth get angry before, not even when he’d accidentally left him out on the lawn all night, not even when Mark had drawn spectacles on him with a marker pen. And it wasn’t strong, this anger, that was the pity of it, it was sad and pleading.
“Johnny, you mustn’t be rude like that. She’s my friend.”
“Your friend? Garth, she’s not your friend!”
“Yes, she is. Yes, she is. She rides this train with me every day. She gets on at Overton at five fifteen, she gets off at Padstock at five thirty-six. All these fine people here, all around, they all ride with me. Ever reliable. We’ve never spoken, this dear lady and I, but we’re friends regardless. She’s been a constant to me these last few years.”
The woman said, “I’ve never seen this pig before in my life.”
“Oh yes,” said Garth gently. “I’m always here. Sometimes you wear a green skirt, sometimes it’s blue. Sometimes you wear your hair in a bun, I like that, it suits you. So, you see, we know each other well. Johnny,” he said, and he turned to his old childhood chum, “you mustn’t embarrass me in front of these people. They’re here for me and you haven’t been.”
“It’s not Johnny,” he heard himself say. “It’s John. It’s John.”
They didn’t speak again until they were sitting in the car. John was sulking, he knew he was; he wasn’t sure what Garth was doing, whenever he’d had arguments with him as a child and Garth had fallen silent it was simply because he had nothing to say, he never really seemed to understand how to do the sulking thing properly. And so it was now. “Well,” said Garth at last, cheerfully. “Quite an adventure!”
“I’m sorry,” said John. “You know.”
Garth looked genuinely baffled. Then his face broke out into that easy smirk. “Hey,” he said. “You don’t need to say sorry. Not for anything. We’re brothers, right? Brothers, remember?”
John did remember. He raised the palm of his hand. He spat on it. Garth smirked still wider, nodded, yes, that’s the way. John prepared to do some spit for Garth too, but Garth didn’t seem to need it; he lifted his trotter to his mouth, hawked, spat, and a whole puddle of phlegm flew out. Garth held up the soaking hoof. John, slowly, held up his hand. They pressed them together.
“Brothers forever,” said Garth.
“Yes. Do you have a…?”
“We can go on other adventures, Johnny! Better adventures, good ones, I’m sorry. At weekends, when I’m off work, we could go to the bottom of the oceans! We could climb mountains, visit Mars, visit the Moon. Would you like that? Yuk, yuk, you’d like that, yeah?”
They sat there in the car for a little while. And then John said that he supposed Garth had better drive him home. Would Garth be fit to drive? – he had drunk really rather a lot. No, it was all right, Garth assured him, he was less nervous driving when he was drunk. So, back home it would be then. Yes.
“I’ve an idea,” said Garth suddenly. “Why not have dinner at mine?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I want you to meet Heather. You’d like Heather.”
“My fiancée. Well, not fiancée. Not yet, because I haven’t proposed. But I will, girlfriend before then, wife after. Yuk yuk yuk! She’ll be so sorry to miss you. She’s heard all about you. Yuk yuk yuk!”
John said no, and Garth said all right. But it was funny. As they drove through the traffic lights, and each time with ever greater confidence, John saw they weren’t following the route back to his house at all, they must be going to Garth’s. And John realised he didn’t mind.
Garth’s house wasn’t to John’s taste, but it was all right, he supposed – the carpets were beige, there was beige wallpaper, and there were a couple of paintings above the stairwell, not real paintings, just prints, one of a clown, one of a ballerina.
“Honey, I’m home!” called out Garth merrily. And there was barking, and an Alsatian dog raced down the stairs. John thought, is this Heather? – because why wouldn’t it be? – and he steeled himself to be very polite. But, “Here, boy!” laughed Garth, “here!” Garth stopped, and rubbed at the dog’s fur. “This is Bonzo! Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy!”Bonzo barked again, and licked at the pig, and John thought that he was salivating.
“And this is Heather,” said Garth.
What sort of girlfriend could a pig expect? Dumpy, plain? Blind, even? Another pig? But Heather was beautiful. John stared at her, and thought he might very well be in love, even before she’d spoken, even before he knew the first thing about her. Heather tried a smile, failed, looked at Garth quizzically.
“Honey,” she said gently, “if you want to bring friends home for dinner, you should call ahead!”
“I’m sorry, honey,” said Garth. “But you’ll never guess who I bumped into! Guess!”
“Hello,” said John.
“You’ve heard me talk about Johnny, haven’t you? You remember Johnny?”
“Guess who this is!”
“Hello,” said John again. “Actually, I’m John.”
“Hello,” said Heather. “Well. It’s nice to meet you at last.” She offered her hand, and John saw that there was a little tattoo on her wrist, a butterfly probably. Her hand was cool, and did she squeeze his? He thought that she had.
“Hello,” said John, for the last time.
“It’s only meatloaf, I’m afraid,” she said. “If you’re happy with meatloaf.”
“I don’t want to put you out,” said John.
“It’s only meatloaf,” she said, and shrugged, and managed a smile then, or maybe it was just a half-smile, like a smirk.
She wasn’t happy. John could see that immediately. Why couldn’t Garth see it too? Why couldn’t Garth see that he was with a beautiful woman, who must be wondering what she’d ever done that she’d ended up with a fat pig? And he felt a flash of contempt for his old friend then, and anger too, that he didn’t realise how lucky he was, and how selfish.
“You’ll love Heather’s meatloaf, it’s very good,” said Garth.
Heather went back to the kitchen. Garth led John through to the sitting room. The sitting room was beige, too, but the sofa looked very comfortable.
“A drink?” said Garth. He beamed at John, he was so happy to be showing off his home to his friend, his beige home, his drinks cabinet, his girlfriend. He struggled with the decanter, and John could have helped him, but he didn’t, and besides if Garth wanted to be master of the house, let him be. He poured a couple of whiskies. John thanked him. Garth sat on the sofa, gave a groan of pleasure as he sank deep into it, John wasn’t sure how he could be prised out again.
“Well,” said John. “This is very nice. Well done. You’ve done all right for yourself.”
“Oh, this is all Heather’s handiwork,” said Garth, and John, of course, had known that. “I don’t have any taste!”
“You have lots of taste,” said John. “Heather’s stunning.”
Garth winked. “She’s quite the catch!” he agreed. “Yuk yuk yuk!”
“Don’t say that, stop saying that. If you want to laugh, just laugh, if you don’t, don’t. For Christ’s sake. For Christ’s sake. When you say it out loud, you sound like a spastic.”
“Yes,” said Garth quietly. “I’m sorry.”
Heather came into the sitting room at last. “Dinner is served.”
“Thank you, my lady!” said Garth. “That didn’t take long!”
“It didn’t,” said John.
“It’s just meatloaf,” said Heather. She gestured to John for help, and together they pulled Garth out of the sofa and back on to his feet.
Heather sat three places at the table. At the head, she laid lots of old newspaper on the floor. Garth sat down. Then Heather went back into the kitchen, brought out three plates of steaming meatloaf. She nodded at John to sit down too, frowned that he hadn’t already done so.
“This smells delicious,” said John. “Thank you.”
“This is such a treat,” said Garth. “Dinner with my two favourite people in the entire world.”
“Eat before it gets cold, honey,” said Heather.
“But you are. My two favourite people! The entire world! I love you both. I’m not ashamed to say that.”
“It looks delicious too,” said John. “Yum!”
Garth smirked the widest smirk he could, then fell upon the food. Meatloaf sprayed down on to the newspaper. It was gone within moments. He chased a last morsel around the plate, as if teasing it, and then with his tongue scooped it into his mouth.
And John turned away from Garth, and looked at Heather, and he saw that Heather was looking right back at him, quite shamelessly. He smiled, and she gave another one of those little smirks, and maybe blushed a bit.
“How did you two meet?” John asked.
“It sounds like a cliche. We met at a dance!” said Garth.
“A dance,” agreed Heather.
“Not a proper dance, you know the sort. It was for charity.”
“I didn’t know pigs could dance,” said John.
Garth laughed. “Ah, that’s just it! You got me! I think I trod on poor Heather’s toes!”
“You weren’t too bad,” said Heather.
“I think I crushed those pretty toes of hers! Beneath my clumping ugly hooves!”
“You were better than you thought,” said Heather.
“It was a charity thing,” said Garth, and winked at John, as if that explained everything.
“And what do you do, Heather?” asked John.
“She’s in marketing,” said Garth.
“What do you market, Heather?” asked John.
“She’s very good!” said Garth. “Oh, do you remember that time, honey? When we went to the moon together? And I’d forgotten my spacesuit?”
“That wasn’t me, honey. That was Johnny.”
“Actually, it’s John.”
John finished his meatloaf.
“I’d like to raise a glass,” said Garth, “to my two favourite people in the entire world. Thank you,” he said. Heather poured him another drink, helped him to hold it. “Thank you. Thank you.”
Heather cleared the table, cleaned the debris off the newspaper into a dog bowl, the dog got very excited. “Would Johnny give me a hand in the kitchen?” she said.
“He’s our guest,” said Garth.
“I don’t mind helping you in the kitchen,” said John. Heather nodded, left – and John picked up a few stray pieces of cutlery, followed her.
He wondered whether she was going to ask him for help. To escape, to get out of this mess. Or just for advice, what should she do? Or a shoulder to cry on, or someone to talk to, some human contact.
She said, “Do you know what you’ve done? Do you even care?”
“What, I don’t…?”
“You broke his fucking heart.”
She was still talking quietly, but her eyes were blazing, and she was standing so close to him, and he could feel how hot she was, and he thought it was all fury. He thought for a moment she might spit at him. He thought she really might.
“He’s trying so hard,” she said. “We’re trying. And he’s getting better. With all the drinking, and that. And he’s a good person. He doesn’t deserve…”
“I’m sorry,” said John.
“Shut up,” she said. “What I’m saying is, are you back? For good, this time? Or are you just going to walk away and leave me to pick up the pieces?”
“I don’t know,” said John.
“Well. Well. At least you’re honest. I’ll give you that much.”
“I never meant to hurt anyone,” John said.
“Oh, no one ever means to do anything,” said Heather.
“He wants to marry you.” And he realised it wasn’t a butterfly on her wrist, it was the face of a pig, upside down, so only she could see it properly.
“And I’ll say yes,” she said. “When he gets the nerve to ask me. When he gets his confidence back.”
Heather gave the smirk again, that broken little smile. And for a second John thought he’d been forgiven, or understood, at the very least – but it wasn’t for him, she turned around and left the kitchen and went back to her boyfriend.
“What do you think?” laughed Garth, when John followed her through. “Aren’t I one lucky pig?”
“You are a lucky pig,” said John.
“Aren’t I, though?” He belched, apologised. His eyes were brimming over with tears. “All the adventures we three can have together. We’ll have such fun.”
“Let’s wait and see,” said Heather.
“Did I ever tell you? About our trip to the moon?” And Garth leaned forward, and put one trotter on Heather’s hand, and one on John’s. “I was such a silly piggy. We went to the moon. And I had forgotten my spacesuit! And there we were, on the moon’s surface, and I suddenly realised, I couldn’t breathe!” He laughed briefly, a proper croaky laugh this time, he didn’t have to say the words. “Oh, Jesus,” he said. “I was so scared. I was so fucking scared, Heth. I thought I was going to die. And Johnny saved me. Johnny saved my life that day, so I could be with you.”
Garth turned to look at John.
“No. You’ve got it all wrong. Don’t you remember? Garth. You got on that rocket because you knew I’d get into trouble. You brought the spacesuit. There I’d go, off on my adventures, and you were the one looking out for me, keeping me safe. It was you.”
Garth stared at him with the widest eyes. “It was me?”
“It was always you.”
“It was me,” Garth said, slowly, as if trying the words out for size. And he nodded. “It had to be me, because I wanted to take care of you. I’ll always take care of you, Johnny.”
“But you need to take care of Heather now,” said John. “She needs you.”
Garth gestured that John should come closer. John leaned in. He smelled alcohol on the pig’s breath, and something plasticky, and something like farmyard shit. “I love her so much,” Garth confided.
“I should go,” said John.
“I’ll drive you back,” said Garth.
“I’ll call you a taxi,” said Heather.
“I’ll walk,” said John. “It’s a nice evening. I’ll be okay.”
It wasn’t a nice evening, as it happened. It was raining. But that didn’t matter.
On his way back from Garth’s he got lost, and when he reached home he was drenched.
His mother and father had already eaten, and were watching a movie on television. He stood in the doorway, dripping.
“You missed dinner,” said his father, eyes not leaving the screen.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I should have called. I’m sorry.”
His father opened his mouth to say something else. Then changed his mind.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said John.
And he didn’t mean that he wasn’t going back to college, or wouldn’t go out and get an office job maybe, or would one day not find someone who could love him, someone good, someone who wasn’t imaginary. And they knew what he meant.
No one said anything for a while. The statement just sort of hung there.
Then his mother said, “You’d better not.” And she moved up to make space for him on the sofa.
They watched the rest of the movie together. It was a romcom. It was quite good.
And the next day, both his parents went back to work. “It’s time,” they said.
John said he’d stay home. He thought he might tidy up his bedroom. Mum laughed, and said that in all these years she’d never heard him tidy his bedroom willingly! Was he feeling quite well? He laughed.
He took a cardboard box upstairs. He emptied the cupboards, took out all the comics. There was a game of snakes and ladders missing the dice, a teddy bear he didn’t know he’d owned. He put everything into the box, forgotten toys, and toys he’d never really forgotten, all of it. Everything he didn’t need any longer, and everything that didn’t need him, he set it all free.