[I read this 1995 novel in three sections, writing about each section before reading the next.]
17 December 2019
The first third—to Ray’s account of the Pyramids
The narration is shared by four men, on a car journey in 1989 to scatter the ashes of a man they all knew. Three of them are in their late sixties, as was Jack, the man who has just died of cancer. The fourth, Vince, is the adopted son of the dead man. He’s in his forties, runs the car sales business he’s built up from almost nothing, and is driving them to Margate from where they live in Bermondsey in East London. When it was first published, comparisons were made with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: multiple (male) narrators conveying the last remains of someone close, on a journey that reveals things about each of them as they go. Some of what we learn comes from their internal monologues, but at least as much is revealed by their interactions during the trip, what the other characters think about them, or what is said in remembered conversations. Inevitably, this journey is probably more about the past than the present, and the mixture of these make the dynamics of these interactions more complicated with every chapter.
Graham Swift is one of my favourite authors, and I’m interested that he’s chosen this very male world. It’s the blokeishness of an older generation—Swift must have been about Vince’s age when he wrote this, not that of the older characters—and it’s one of them, Ray, who holds the thread of the day’s journey. He narrates occasional chapters with place-names for titles—Bermondsey, New Cross and so on—suggesting some kind of central role. Things are being slowly revealed to us about these men and their lives, and there might well be secrets some of them don’t know about. Maybe Ray is at the centre of one of them.
The women in these men’s lives, owing to the nature of the story, have no voice… but, from the start, they play central roles. Amy, Jack’s widow, is not coming on the trip with them, ostensibly because this her day for seeing June, their daughter. We gather fairly quickly that June was born severely brain-damaged, has the mind of a baby according to one of or other of the men. The visits, it also becomes clear, are a huge part of Amy’s life. Jack had not been a visitor to June’s bedside, and when he finally decided to retire he had told Amy they would be going to live in Margate. She had her own ideas about that, and when he more or less immediately contracted his terminal cancer, the idea came to nothing. She never wanted it, she’s not coming today, and… we know there’s more to the story than marital resentment.
Like, why on earth Margate? One or other of Jack’s friends—they all knew him in different ways, not that this means any of them were best mates—is pretty sure Jack didn’t have enough money for his retirement project. Even just before his death, Jack had asked Vince to ‘lend’ him £1000, an idea Vince was bemused by. But Margate has a special resonance for several of them. Lenny, a trader on a market stall and the one with the least money to spend, would have loved to go on the kind of Sunday trip that Jack and Amy went on with the young Vince. They used to take Lenny’s daughter Sally…
…even when it started to mean that Vince had to go in the back of the butcher’s van they were all travelling in, because there was no longer enough room in the cab. I think it’s Vince who tells us that Sally sat on Amy’s knee until she got too big—an idea that throws up a lot of thoughts for him. Like, why couldn’t he have had Sally on his own lap? Was Amy, this one day in the week, able to think of Sally as the walking, talking daughter she never had? Vince himself was happy to put up with the ineradicable smell of meat in the back, despite Jack’s best efforts to clean it, for the sake of time with Sally. It only came to an end after that one time when Vince couldn’t stop himself being sick.
Jack had been a butcher, following his father into the business, ‘Dodds and Son.’ Was he happy to do it? Nobody seems to believe that he was, assuming he did it because it was the easiest thing to do. Once, he had said that he wanted to be a doctor, making a joke—or maybe it wasn’t a joke—that doctors aren’t that different from butchers. It was a fantasy, obviously, one of the things in Jack’s life that he didn’t examine closely. Another was the idea that Vince would follow him to be the next ‘and Son,’ a project Vince sabotaged by signing up for the army for five years. It was always motors Vince loved, not meat. Even Margate itself was a kind of fantasy for Jack. One of the characters, possibly referring to a conversation with Amy, describes how his bucket-and-spade image of it was never the reality. He didn’t even seem to know that there’s no Margate Pier, as such. What is called that is really the stone jetty, which is no doubt where they’ll fulfil his last wish by scattering his ashes.
This is a story about men and women making what they can of their lives. Lenny, the market trader, is the one Ray calls a ‘stirrer’, winding up the other characters as if to establish his status. His tone is bantering, sometimes coming close to provocation. I’m amazed Vince hasn’t said something about being called Big Boy every time Lenny turns his attention to him. Vince is proud of the business he’s built up, although in his private monologues the reader comes to understand that it isn’t going so well as he makes out. Vic has no such status anxieties. He’s another old friend, the funeral director in premises opposite Dodds and Son on the high street. Undertakers never go out of business, as he or somebody else has remarked, and on this day of all days, he is almost deferred to. For miles, until somebody remarks on it, he’s the one who holds the box containing the jar of ashes.
Which leaves Ray. He’d met Jack by chance in the army, when they were both posted to Egypt in the War. Big Jack immediately became friendly with little Ray, telling him small men were always lucky in wartime. The name stuck, and he’s Lucky Ray 40-odd years later… when, by coincidence or otherwise, he’s often had success betting on horses. The way he tells it, he’s often been able to put his many hours of studying racing form and ground conditions to win bets at fairly long odds—enough, for instance, to pay for his daughter’s fare to Australia and for the camper van he hoped would save his marriage—but that’s not about luck, and it brings him little enough happiness. He must be a bright bloke, although he doubts it, attributing his brainy reputation to his own father’s misplaced faith in his cleverness.
This is how things are in the postwar world of the working class East End. There are bantering friendships among men who only meet regularly in the pub, reputations based on hearsay and gossip—it’s Lenny, I think, who complains about Ray not sharing his luck enough—and women they know about but don’t really know. It isn’t like a village, because the hierarchies are different and the strata are narrower.
Graham Swift builds it all up from the men’s own thought-streams, but this doesn’t stop the form of the multi-voiced narrative being carefully delineated. It isn’t free-flowing, like stream of consciousness, because Swift clearly has a plan for how he slowly reveals the back-stories. But the voices are nuanced enough for us to recognise differences, the care different characters take over how they describe things. Ray has his own way with words: when I started to read the opening chapter, which he narrates, I thought Swift hadn’t quite pitched it right because among the non-Standard English phrases come apt little descriptions, almost (but not quite) self-conscious. But that’s Ray, a clerk in an insurance office, and he knows he’s not stupid. It’s the voice of aspiration, a key part of that community in that era. It’s one of the ways that undereducated people used to get by. It’s not about resenting the lack of opportunities, it’s about getting on with it as best you can. (My own father was exactly of that generation and lived in that kind of community. He was just like that.)
What else? These men are at the end of their working lives, and Jack’s death has forced them to think about their own mortality. There are inevitably jokes about who’ll be next, how Ray and Lenny would appreciate it if Vic didn’t go before them. Through these musings, Swift has them look back on the lives they’ve led, but with none of the self-consciousness of a written memoir. That kind of considered repackaging, often incorporating a sense of satisfied entitlement, isn’t for members of this class. At the point I’ve reached, it’s still only the late morning, and we know there’ll be a lot more to come about these men’s lives. We know something about them already…
…like, Ray’s wife Carol has left him, but either he doesn’t really know why, or he’s in denial, or he’s simply not telling us. She hated the fact that that Sue, their daughter, chose to tell him about her planned move to the other side of the world with an Australian she’d met. She hadn’t liked it when Ray had let Sue go away with the man for a holiday at the age of eighteen—this must have been the late 1960s, when the new so-called permissiveness was difficult for people of an older generation, especially women. Graham Swift knows how it is often mothers who suspect the motives of men, not fathers and, in this case, Carol seems convinced that Ray has been manipulated.
We only have Ray’s memory of it, but we can imagine how Carol feels that she’s the one who knows how her daughter operates. We can’t know precisely how angry she is when she comes home to find out not only of the possibility of the move to Australia, but that it’s more or less an agreed fact. Ray might feel that he just wants to help his daughter, and later presents her with the money for the fare from that all-important win. But it must have contributed to the deep rift between him and Carol, and we don’t know what else there’s been. I can’t remember if we’ve found out yet what the last straw was, but they haven’t been together for years now.
Is it all like this? Men just trying to get by, as they see it, and getting things wrong? I think I’ve said enough about Jack and his half-formed (or half-baked) plans. But there’s Lenny too, and their own daughter. Had he and his wife always expected that she and Vince would eventually marry? If so, she has other ideas when Vince joins the army, having married somebody else. It isn’t a happy marriage, and nor is Vince’s. It comes about through the kind of ad hoc living arrangements that used to happen a lot in the years following the War, after Jack takes pity on a young woman down from the north who seems a bit lost in the big city. (There might be more to the story than that but we don’t get to find out.) She’s called Mandy, and she can have Vince’s room. Lenny, telling the story, thinks Mandy is Jack’s idea of another daughter-substitute for Amy, and that he hadn’t been thinking about Vince at all. And then Vince comes home…
…and ends up sleeping in the camper-van. So many half-baked ideas have unexpected consequences, and the upshot of this, eventually, is that Mandy goes to the camper-van, ostensibly to thank Vince. After a time they are together, and he’s buying her pretty dresses with the money he’s making. Ray had sold his own father’s scrapyard to Vince at a knock-down price, and he’s doing all right on it. And the repair business becomes Dodds Motors, then Dodds Auto Showroom. Who would have thought it?
3 January 2020
The middle third—to the arrival in Canterbury
Ordinary lives. One of the women gets a chapter to herself—Mandy from Blackburn, Vince’s wife—and there are a few things happening along the road… but, as before, this is mainly about the unremarkable lives of working class men. And, as before, I love how Graham Swift does it. There are the elements of a soap opera about some of the events they remember, which isn’t surprising considering that’s usually the commonest way of representing working class lives… but it’s their internal lives that give this novel such a kick. There’s space for all these men to question every last detail about how they live—and the recent memory of Jack’s inoperable cancer takes their thoughts about mortality far beyond blokeish banter. Ray remembers one conversation after Jack’s heard the bad news. ‘“It’s a tough one, Jack, it’s a tough one.” Like I’m not talking about the thing it is, like it’s an extra tricky test you come out of afterwards.’
By this time, there isn’t one of them who hasn’t thought about death very seriously indeed. I can’t remember which of them remarks about what a leveller it is—perhaps remembering how the officer class in war had no special privileges in death—but it doesn’t really matter. Without spelling it out, Swift seems to want to show that these ordinary, unglamorous men can reach conclusions every bit as thoughtful as any others in fiction. Maybe they drink too much in their pub stop in Rochester, maybe they’re capable of a fist-fight—can you guess which two it’s between?—but some of the truths they reach are universal.
If this sounds patronising, it’s my fault, not Swift’s. Things come out about identity, about moral choices we make, about what’s important in life. It feels real, because it all comes out of the everyday… and although that might seem a fairly random list of themes, it will do for now. Take identity. Jack is at the centre of this, with all the other characters having things to say about who he was, and wasn’t. Ray, having been with him in the war, knows a lot about how he had enough about him to have made his own decisions about who he wanted to be… but he became his father’s son anyway. There seems to have been something missing for Jack ever after—we remember that fantasy of becoming a doctor—and a lot of it is to do with his own role as a father. He seems to have no feelings for their daughter June, only ever having visited her once. Taking Sally on Sunday jaunts with the family doesn’t help—and neither, much more problematically, does the de facto adoption of Vince.
He seems to have done no better as a husband. To the reader’s surprise, it turns out that the camper van was the location of illicit sex before Vince took it over, when Ray started to take Jack’s wife Amy on weekly jaunts that turn into something else. It’s only Vince’s return from the army that puts a stop to all that. Butcher, father, husband—all are roles that Jack somehow falls into, and none of them work for him. I think it’s Lenny, of all his contemporaries, who is most vehement about Jack’s failure. He’s vehement about most things…
…including his own failures. His aggressive banter isn’t just to compensate for his sense of inferiority amongst men who have something to show for their years of work. He’s a natural fighter, literally at first—he was a middleweight boxer before the war—and he’s permanently chippy. Or, rather, he isn’t going to hide any negative feelings he might have for anybody… which is where his aggressive ‘Big boy’ taunt of Vince comes from. It seems his daughter Sally was made pregnant by Vince, presumably before he enlisted in the army, which must have been why she got married in haste to an unsuitable man. Her husband is a small-time crook and—soap plot alert—was grassed up by Vince when he tried to get him to sell a stolen car for him. So it’s Lenny who starts that fight, with Vince, and neither of them comes out of it well.
Vince. He becomes much more central in these middle chapters, because it’s his sense of his own identity that is most problematic. He doesn’t so much know who he is as who he isn’t, and I’m wondering if this recurring worry is really at the heart of this novel. Not just for Vince, but for all of them. As with Jack’s unfulfilled army promise—Ray had been impressed by his ability to step up in a crisis—and Lenny’s sad failure after the war. He got nowhere in the boxing ring and never managed to get away from the hand-to-mouth existence of running a fruit and veg stall. Vince knows he definitely is not Jack’s son, proudly displaying his ‘VIP’ initials on his army kit bag and telling Mandy how his real parents were killed by a type of bomb she’s never heard of. It isn’t clear to us why his vehement rejection of his adoptive family is as strong as anything we see from Lenny, but it’s visceral. Or whatever the opposite of visceral is. He’s permanently disconnected, making up for it with spiv-like swagger—Swift dares us not to take seriously this incarnation of the stereotypical used-car salesman, complete with camel-hair coat—and his suggestive remarks to any young woman he meets. It might be all talk with Vince, but the talk is almost aggressively sexual.
What’s he making up for? This middle section is a time for confessions, and Vince’s is the most shocking. He describes how, almost by accident but not quite, he found himself acting as a pimp for his own daughter, as he puts it himself. He was losing a sale to a Mr Hussain—the same man who’s supposed to be buying the Mercedes they’re driving in to Margate—so he got the sexy-looking 18-year-old Kath from behind the desk to accompany him on a test drive. He pretended he couldn’t do it himself because he had another appointment—and all the time, he’s letting us know how much he despises the ‘towel-headed’ foreigner made rich by oil. His own experiences in Aden seem to have turned him into a lifelong Arab-hater, so there’s self-loathing in his account of how Kath arrived at Jack’s funeral in a black outfit that must have cost £500, paid for by the same Hussain. He’d better buy the car, or ‘I’ll get him by the brown bollocks, one for the Merc and one for going cold on Kath.’ He’s as much of a mess as his ruined suit, mud- and grass-stained after the fight with Lenny.
Then there are Ray and Vic. Ray’s confessions, like him, seem small by comparison. We know about his sense of loss after he let his daughter go to Australia without enough of a struggle, not that he puts it so frankly. Not that he puts it at all, really. And he’s lost his wife too, not long after, because… why, exactly? She went with another man, and we can only guess that it was Ray’s habit of keeping his own counsel and taking the path of least resistance that finally turned her off him for good. His confession is about how, carefully and painstakingly, he first offers Amy lifts to June’s care-home and how one day, his calculations made, he diverts to Epsom Races and a pleasant afternoon in the camper van. It’s typical of Ray that the affair seems to come to an end when Vince starts to live in the van, after fourteen happy weeks. Win some, lose some.
Vic’s the one we know the least about. His confession seems to be at least partly about survivor guilt. He was in the navy, with a reputation (as an undertaker in Civvy Street) as someone who would be able to stay out of harm’s way. Which, dear reader, is exactly what happens when a missile kills all his mates in the fire party just after he’s been sent aft for more hoses. On board, he’s an outsider as much as he is on land, describing how he becomes the one who has to sew up the bodies for burial at sea. With ‘the last stitch, just in case and by custom, through the poor unfortunate frigging jolly Jack Tar’s nose.’ His graveyard humour is so dark there’s no humour in it at all, as though he’s permanently alienated. And he never talks about those sons of his, the ones—if I’m remembering this right from early in the novel—who work in the business now like Vince never did in Jack’s.
Vic is the one who proposes the first little diversion from their route to Margate after their pub stop. This is about death and memory too, as he asks for them all to visit the naval memorial at Chatham. The exhausting climb up the hill is another reminder of failing powers for Ray, noticing Lenny struggling—and, more urgently, the need to take a leak…. But at the memorial, Lenny is suspicious of a conversation Vince and Ray seem to be having out of sight and earshot. In fact, it’s about Jack, and how he had felt bad about leaving Amy short of money. We know about that loan request from Vince, and now we hear about how Jack wanted Ray to be lucky for him just one more time. He seems to have been approaching death with the same sense of failure as he’d lived his life. Nobody likes to have to ask.
The second diversion is more dramatic, in every sense. Vince, eyes forward and saying nothing at first, swings the car off the main road and heads—who knows where? ‘Detour,’ he eventually spits out, and he bounces them up winding country lanes to a viewpoint. The others don’t know what this is all about, but the reader has some idea. This is what Vince had once proudly announced to Mandy to be the Garden of England, and it goes back to stories Jack used to tell about hop-picking. Chapters earlier, this story had made Vince the object of ridicule at school after he gets the idea that babies somehow come from hop-picking. It contributes to his aggressive reputation in the playground, based on his reaction to taunts that he isn’t really Jack and Amy’s son. Soon he’s fighting everybody, even Sally one time when they were in the middle of a private little show-and-tell with their pants down. Vince’s problematic sense of who he is goes back a long way.
The detour leads to the fight. Lenny, echoing those playground taunts, keeps repeating that Vince has no right, that he’s no closer to Jack than any of them. Lenny has never forgiven Vince for his treachery concerning his son-in-law and the stolen car, but it comes out as outrage that Vince is daring, with no agreement from the others, to attempt to take the lid off the jar holding Jack’s ashes. It’s only after the fight, and after he’s scattered a token handful, that we see how deep this goes with Vince. All his swagger has gone, and Ray describes how upset he looks. He’s looking for the connection he’s never been able to feel, and he’s trying to do something for Jack in a way he’s never done in his life. There isn’t a dry eye on the hill.
What else? Plenty, including that long chapter narrated by Mandy. She is able to give us a lot of insights into how Jack picked her up at Billingsgate, how ambiguous it is whether he fancied her, as she believed, or was just looking for another daughter-substitute as Vince thinks. She’s quite proud of her line to pushy older men about how they remind her of an uncle of hers, but maybe his guided tour of the sights is as innocent as he makes out. And we find out from her a different angle on Vince and his need to impress. She knew what he was up to when he showed her Ray’s camper van and, apparently, was as up for it as he was in. But he is no more impressed by him than any of the women seem to be by the men in their lives.
And, like everybody else, she wonders about the road not taken. Jack was almost the first person she spoke to when she got to London from the north—her final lift had been making a delivery to Billingsgate, so she’s able to make knowing remarks about meat-wagons—and she muses about never having reached the West End. She also hadn’t taken the first available lift back to the north, and makes more knowing remarks about the Sergeant Pepper clichés in her life. Holes in Backburn, Lancashire, for a start, and not quite meeting a man from the motor trade. But he was very keen indeed to assure her he soon would be.
Now they are in Canterbury. Lenny had suggested it sarcastically, but now they are approaching the cathedral they can’t help being struck by its size and centuries of history. They all seem awed by how things are turning out, and someone remarks how respectful to Jack it is to bring his ashes here. Swift makes it as understated as ever, but we know what Ray is talking about as they make their way through the precincts. ‘It’s like we aren’t the same people who left Bermondsey this morning, four blokes on a special delivery. It’s like somewhere along the line we just became travellers.’ Oh yes.
From Canterbury Cathedral to the end
Wonderful. I always considered Waterland to be my favourite novel of Swift’s, but now I’ve reread this one I’m not so sure. I suppose I’ll have to reread that one too now. They can both be set alongside Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day as novels that masterfully bring out the tragedy not only of ordinary lives, but of paths chosen, or not chosen, with no idea of the consequences. There is some comfort at the end of Last Orders, even a hint that these men and women are capable of something a tiny bit different. It’s understated—what isn’t in this novel?—but I get the sense that it’s definitely there. As they get out of the car, Lenny having satisfied his need to piss following one pint too many in Canterbury, we see decisions being reached. Lenny and Vince stop treating each other like dirt, Ray offers Vince the £1000 of his that he’s kept, never having realised how close to insolvency Dodds Motors has become in the latest recession… and even Amy, on the bus to see June in a parallel narrative taking place at the same time, has decided that 50 years of pointless visits is enough—June is old enough to make her own way in the world without her. She knows it’s nonsense, of course, but she’s never had the tiniest hint that June even knows she’s there.
And we’re on Margate Pier. Really, it’s an uncared-for working space as worn-out and crumbling as any backstreet in Bermondsey, and with metalwork suffering the kind of rust only the sea can inflict. None of the men mind, just as they don’t mind the squall of rain that arrives with them. Is there a break in the clouds? Ray, narrating this final chapter, thinks there might be…
…but I need to rewind. They spend far longer in Canterbury than they had expected to, mainly in the cathedral. We’d already had hints of a sense of purpose slowly settling on them before they enter, and now these four men, none of whom has ever set foot inside before, are awed by its seriousness. Swift, with the sleight of hand he’s been using throughout, puts into their mouths every conceivable level of meditative speculation about death. Some of the rivalries and niggles are still there at times, and the bantering tone is never far away—it would never do to be solemn amongst your mates—but in private moments there’s real introspection going on. This experience is making everybody ask the big questions, however they might be moderated by blokeish asides.
Vic looks around him. ‘Well, it makes you feel humble. It makes a man in my line of business feel humble to think of what they’ve got in here. Tombs, effigies, crypts, whole chapels. When all I do in the normal course of work is box ’em up and book ’em in for their twenty minutes in the crypt.’ This is the opening of his first short chapter in the cathedral, but the next, Vince’s, is a flashback to the scene inside the chapel of rest at Vic’s funeral parlour. Amy has been to see the body, and it’s ‘like something special had happened to her and she wanted to share it.’ He goes in and, after being in the company of the body for some moments, he comes to this: ‘I thought, He aint Jack Dodds, no more than I’m Vince Dodds. Because nobody aint nobody. Because nobody aint more than just a body, than just their own body, which aint nobody.’ Ah.
It isn’t all like this. Lenny soon tires of the way Vince takes over, reading aloud from the guidebook he’s bought. He and Vic manage to slip away, leaving Vince with Ray for a while. They’ve noticed ever since the naval memorial at Chatham that they have things to talk about… which they don’t do, in fact. Ray still has something to work out in his own mind, to do with his resentment about how Vince somehow pulled a fast one when he offered to buy Ray’s scrapyard, the one his father didn’t want him to continue with. We get the full story, and it has much to do with Ray being indecisive as Vince being pushy. He’s spent his life studying horses, not property prices. How was he to know the value of the place would skyrocket after he’s sold it too cheap in the first place? And his sense of guilt is showing. He wonders if Vince knows how the camper van was being used before—just as, later, he convinces himself Jack knew, too. Misgivings like this affect a man’s judgment.
Meanwhile, there’s that parallel narrative going on. In two or three of Amy’s chapters we get scenes from a marriage that was never going to work. First, Swift uses that sleight of hand again to give us the pastoral idyll that is no such thing, the Eastenders’ annual trip to the hop-growing districts of Kent. He puts into Amy’s mouth descriptions that combine the realities of thankless piecework—made bearable in her memory by her pretence of flirting with the stony-faced tallyman, so hard she can be suggestive about it—with summer evenings before the war that are made to seem frankly poetic. And we come to understand why Jack made those confusing jokes in Vince’s hearing about hop-picking and how babies are made. June is made in one moment of wished-for abandon, and Amy wonders what that other East End girl was using so she could do it as often as she wanted with no such bad luck.
It’s the start of all their woe. In another chapter Amy describes their one weekend in Margate, a sham of a late honeymoon after June’s birth and Jack’s immediate rejection of her. There’s different imagery now, culminating with the duck-shooting stall at which Jack shows how good he will be when he joins up, the stupid teddy bear Amy chooses and immediately regrets—she doesn’t need to mention, and nor does Jack, that June will never have any use for it—and his unceremoniously dropping it from the real seaside pier at Margate that existed at that time. It was known as the Jetty, and is long gone by the time his ashes are to be scattered nearly fifty years later. This painful bit of back-story comes just as the men are about to arrive in Margate, and we begin to understand something of the ambiguous, not-quite phoney nostalgia of Jack’s dream of Margate. It’s something else in his life, in both their lives, that never was.
This is one of the things that Swift is so good at. Little details from a hundred and more pages back, sometimes right from the beginning of the novel, come together in a single moment that explains whole lifetimes of disappointment and regret. Amy’s other revelation, that this visit she is making to see June is to be her last, comes in the final chapter she narrates. So it comes after the story of the failure of the weekend in Margate—the one, now I think about it, that no number of subsequent visits with Sally as a kind of proxy daughter can put right.
Sally. We don’t hear from her directly, but Lenny fills in the details of another wasted life. She didn’t marry because she had to—her pregnancy was brought to an end by a backstreet abortionist. Lenny is rueful about the fact that five years later she could have had it done legally by a competent doctor…. He doesn’t spell it out, but we guess why she never becomes pregnant again. Since then, it seems, she’s been a full-time prostitute, and Lenny says he doesn’t blame her. But it explains even more clearly what that fight was about. And of all the men, Lenny is the one who has been most physically ruined by life, his florid, smashed-up face telling the story. Everyone expects he’ll be the next to go.
And where does it leave them all? Swift doesn’t spell anything out, but we can imagine some things improving. Vince and Lenny have come through their moment of conflict without it leading to long-term enmity. Vic is Vic, and he’ll be all right. He has his business, and he gets to know things—like, he happened to be on a pick-up at June’s care home when Ray and Amy were once sitting there looking out of place on a garden bench…. And what about Ray and Amy? The £1000—which Vince really did lend Jack—was for Ray to place a big bet for Amy’s benefit. Like Vince, Jack has been hiding the fact that his business isn’t doing as well as he makes out, and he borrowed money from a loan shark. The idea of retiring to Margate, unsurprisingly, had been a sham so that he could sell up and buy somewhere cheap. Now the loan is to be called in, and Amy knows nothing about it….
Ray places the bet, and wins more than Amy will need. And… we don’t know how that story is going to unfold. Amy has paid her dues to both Jack and June, not that she puts it like that, and Ray reminds us how he had wanted her since before he met her. Jack showed him a photo of her when they were in Egypt, and Ray tells the story of how he would sneak a crafty look at it when Jack was at what the army called his ablutions. If only she had known. If only Ray had been a different sort of man.
And if only Jack had been a different sort of man as well. As in As I Lay Dying—I notice that it was a similarity that was seized upon as an example of Swift’s alleged lack of originality when Last Orders was published—we hear the voice of the dead character. Jack gets about half a page and… and what? All we get is his repetition of what his father had told him about how to run a butchery business. It’s the meanest metaphor imaginable for the lessons not learnt and a life spent trying, and failing, to simply keep afloat. ‘He said, “Jack boy, it’s all down to wastage.”’ That’s how it starts, and it ends, “What you’ve got to understand is the nature of the goods. Which is perishable.” Well, we all know that now. And that Jack couldn’t even get that right.
Then we’re in the final chapter, Margate, and it’s only when they’re on the pier that Ray decides to give Vince his money back. He had earlier told himself that one of the reasons he sold the yard too cheaply was as a favour to Jack after all the favours he’d done him in the army. A sense of obligation, another of the drivers of unhappiness in this book. It wouldn’t be honest to make Vince pay for that now, not that he puts it like that. But he knows it’s the right thing to do and, without fully understanding the reason, he can sense Vince’s relief.
It’s time to scatter those ashes. It’s Ray holding the jar—or ‘holding Jack’ as they’ve come to refer to it in these later chapters—and by the time they’ve struggled through the rain that’s just arrived, he’s feeling good about it. And they don’t get any of it wrong. Ray unscrews the lid, takes the first handful of ash, and… ‘It’s true what Vic said. The wind takes it, it’s gone in a whirl, in a flash.’ Then the others take a handful in turn, and then again. There’s a little left, and the final long sentence of the novel brings—what, exactly? ‘I throw the last handful … and I hold up the jar, shaking it, like I should chuck it out to sea too, a message in a bottle, Jack Arthur Dodds, save our souls, and the ash that I carried in my hands, which was the Jack who once walked around, is carried away by the wind, is whirled away by the wind till the ash becomes wind and the wind becomes Jack what we’re made of.’
It isn’t exactly closure, more an opening out. These men have come so far on this journey, questioned every last thing about their own lives, that all they’re sure of—or all Ray is sure of, which is the same thing by now—is that this is all there is. Syntax? Who needs syntax when, for this tiny moment, everything is everything else, and there’s nothing that separates us. It’s as good a thought as any to end on.