Call the Fire Brigade by Veronika Groke

Isobel asked me if I wished I could be young again.

It was the first time we’d had sex after my hip replacement, and we had some difficulty making it work. Not the sex itself, which was fine (though I think Isobel found it a bit strange being on top, she’d not done that in a while, the lazy old thing). Actually, it was better than fine. After months of near abstinence it was a bit of a revelation. I’d quite forgotten how good it could be, and I only realised then how much I had missed being this close to her.

‘Well, that was fun!’ Isobel said with a giggle. ‘It’s been a long time. I wasn’t actually sure I’d remember how it’s done.’

‘Oh, you remembered alright, my love,’ I replied. ‘You remembered alright!’

Isobel smiled and put her hands on my cheeks, the way she always did. She looked at me as if she were rediscovering me as well, with those intense grey eyes of hers. I’ve known the look of those eyes for some fifty years now — who would have thought they could still find novelty in such a familiar sight?

Looking back at her, I took in the changes time had made to her face. The laugh lines around her eyes had got deeper, as had the worry lines across her forehead, and her skin had taken on the texture of crumpled silk; but it was, I was pleased to confirm, still the face of the person I liked best in the world.

I first met Isobel at a mutual friend’s house in Manchester when we were both students. She was standing in the kitchen holding a glass of Babycham, wearing a short dress with a bold print of green and yellow flowers and knee-high, white leather boots with laces that made me wonder how long it had taken her to get into them. Her hair was about shoulder-length and curled outwards at the tips; it bopped when she moved. Our mutual friend (I can’t remember her name now) saw me looking at her and introduced us.

‘Don’t call me Izzy,’ was the first thing she said to me.

Taken off-guard, I laughed. ‘OK.’

She looked me up and down, running her finger around the rim of her glass. I smiled, awkwardly, I knew; I had just got glasses and was feeling self-conscious. She told me I looked like Michael Caine. I think that was the moment I fell in love with her.

In our lamp-lit bedroom, almost half a century later, I looked at her as she looked at me, the sense of wonder that played between us settling in my chest and flooding me with warmth. I reached up and stroked her hair.

‘I love you,’ I said.

‘I love you too,’ she replied.

I could have looked at her like that forever, but after a while my new components, unused to the exercise, were beginning to make themselves felt, so I asked her if she wanted to get off.

It was then we realised that it might take a while longer before we could expect our sex life to run smoothly again.

‘I do want to,’ she said with a chuckle, ‘but to be honest, I think I’m stuck.’

I confess, I hadn’t seen this coming — I’d quite assumed we were past the age when sex could be risky. But I didn’t say that. Something else suddenly popped into my head and made me laugh.

Isobel poked my chest. ‘What have you thought of now, you dodgy man? Spit it out!’

‘Maybe we could… maybe we could call the fire brigade,’ I said. I still couldn’t stop laughing. ‘That’s who you call when you get stuck, isn’t it?’

It was February nineteen seventy-six. Isobel and I had moved down to London, where I had recently started a job as a geography lecturer. One of my new colleagues, a lanky German called Uwe, had invited the entire department to his place for a fancy dress party in celebration of carnival. Isobel looked splendid as a nineteen-twenties flapper in a black dress with tassels and high heels (which she had brought along in a bag because it was cold and slippery outside, and, sensible soul that she is, she was going to be damned if she was going out in anything but her moon boots). Puffing on her Silk Cut through a long, black cigarette holder, her Marcel waves a shiny roof of corrugated metal clinging to her head, she was all glamour and elegance. I was at the time experimenting with a big, bushy beard and so had opted to go as a lumberjack, complete with a replica axe, thereby, I liked to think, creating a charming contrast with Isobel’s costume.

I don’t remember much of the party itself, though I’m fairly sure it was a riot — Uwe’s parties usually were. In any case, it was pretty late and we were both well lubricated when we finally set out for home, I clutching my fake axe and Isobel swinging the bag with her heels. Walking along, we reminisced about fancy-dress parties we’d been to as children, and from there the conversation progressed on to other childhood memories. I told Isobel that I had been a fat and awkward child, the kind who trips over his own feet and dangles hopelessly at the bottom of the climbing rope during PE lessons. Isobel reassured me in animated terms that I had nothing to worry about as I had grown up to be quite dishy. Of course, she herself had never had those issues because she had, even during her fat-child phase, always been extremely good at climbing.

 ‘Actually, I can still climb just as well now as I did then,’ she said. ‘I’ll prove it to you. Here, hold this,’ and before I knew what was happening, I was holding her bag with the heels, and she was halfway up a tree by the side of the pavement.

 I’d like to say I tried to hold her back, or at least protested, but the truth of the matter is that I had a mad attack of giggles and just stood there watching her in disbelief until she was really quite high up.

 ‘You see?’ she shouted down at me triumphantly. ‘I can still do it! I told you!’

For a while she just watched me giggle with a cocky smile on her face, clearly revelling in her superiority. But then the cold started to dampen her glee, and she decided it was time to come down. Her moon-boot-clad foot found the branch below hers — and slipped. Isobel and I shouted in unison. She had caught herself in time, but she was now back on the upper branch, and it looked like that was where she was going to stay.

‘But how did you even get up there?’ I called up.

‘I don’t know,’ she called back. ‘It was somehow less slippery going up. You need to come up and help me — my fingers are getting numb, I’m not sure I can hold on much longer!’

 Another mad giggle escaped me, but it was more an expression of amused horror this time.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t make it to the first branch, and if I did, I’d probably get stuck, too. Try again, there has to be a way.’

 But evidently, there was not. After another couple of perilous attempts I agreed that it was best for her to stay put.

‘Wait there,’ I called up, somewhat redundantly. ‘I’ll get help!’

I hung Isobel’s bag on a branch, marched over to a house where the lights were still on, and rang the doorbell. After a moment the door opened a crack, and the thin, dark face of a man peeked out.

‘I’m awfully sorry to disturb you at this time of night,’ I said quickly, ‘but do you think I could use your phone? My fiancée is stuck’ — I omitted “up a tree” at this point — ‘and I urgently need to call someone who can help us get her… er… unstuck.’

The man stared. I must have been quite a sight: a tall, bearded man in a plaid sheepskin jacket and heavy boots, reeking of schnapps and brandishing an axe. I am surprised to this day he didn’t slam the door in my face.

‘Come in,’ he said at last. ‘Where is she stuck, your wife?’

I explained Isobel’s situation. The man kept staring, but, much to his credit, he didn’t comment. He offered me a cup of tea and advised me to call the fire brigade.

It was good advice: they came quickly, and in no time Isobel was back on solid ground with nothing but her dignity bruised. After chiding us extensively for our drunken stupidity and making us promise never to do it again, they even gave us a lift home.

We laughed all the way up the stairs to our little flat, our arms around each other’s shoulders, unclear about who was meant to be supporting whom. We’d left her shoes and my axe, and we’d made utter idiots of ourselves, but we’d also had an adventure together, and we’d come out of it unscathed. I can’t be sure, but I’ve always liked to think that that was the night our daughter Penny was conceived.

The fire brigade became a running joke between us. It was clearly still funny all these years later, because when I mentioned it now Isobel laughed and called me a dodo, which is one of the affectionate insults she uses when she’s not really cross. It seemed to call for some more banter, so I replied in mock protest, ‘I most certainly am not a dodo! I’m a cyborg — I’m the fucking Terminator, is what I am!’

I shouldn’t have said it, it pushed her over the edge. She laughed and laughed, until she was shaking and there were tears running down her face.

‘Isobel, love,’ I said, getting ever so slightly alarmed, ‘I’m glad you’re amused, but please don’t shake me quite so much — I’m a bit worried I’ll fall to pieces again. Remember what the doctor said.’

She wiped the tears off her face, trying to compose herself. ‘Oh, sorry sweetheart.’

At our last consultation, a very serious young doctor had explained to us both the practicalities of ‘post-surgery sexual intercourse’. At the end, she had handed us a leaflet with helpful illustrations, pointing out that the main thing in the beginning was to be careful. Mature adults that we are, we had pored over that leaflet at length over two cups of Costa coffee, commenting on and giggling at each picture.

‘I wish she’d also told us how I can get off again,’ Isobel said.

After some experimentation, we finally managed to get her back down onto the mattress.

‘I can see this is going to take some practice,’ she said once she was lying next to me, her face level with mine now.

‘I’m all in favour of practice,’ I said. ‘And besides, there are several other positions we can try.’

‘Not now, though!’

‘Oh God no, not now! That was quite a workout.’

Isobel snuggled her head into my shoulder and we lay still for a while, enjoying each other’s warmth, the rising and falling of our bodies with each breath. The feeling of human skin on human skin — there is nothing else in the world that feels like that.

Finally, Isobel re-emerged from my shoulder, laying her head on her arm so she could look at me. That was when she asked her question: ‘Do you sometimes wish you could be young again?’

‘What, and miss all this?’ I asked back.

Isobel smirked. ‘I’m serious.’

I kissed her nose. ‘So am I. I like being old with you.’

‘But don’t you sometimes wish you didn’t have to deal with all this? All this… slowing down, things not working properly. That life could be easier again?’

I answered her truthfully, because hers was a serious question that deserved a serious answer. (Besides, Isobel has, over the years, become quite adept at spotting when I’m bullshitting.)

‘Sometimes,’ I said. ‘But then I remember that being young isn’t easy. All this running around, having to do stuff all the time, worrying about school, work, kids, what everyone else thinks of you… In some ways, having to slow down a bit is quite a relief.’

Then I made a suggestive face at her and added, ‘Besides, I like it slow.’

Isobel smiled. ‘Just as well. But I wonder if you’re still going to be quite so positive when I have to get my hip done. How are we going to handle things then, Mr Terminator Man?’

Sometimes people asked me about the secret to our ‘successful marriage’. I told them the usual things: it takes work, it takes patience, it takes compromise. All that is true, of course, but it’s not all. And if I were to be entirely honest, I didn’t really know. I didn’t know what the secret was, and if there even was a secret. Perhaps the parts of us that were attracted to each other to start with never really changed. Or perhaps we just got lucky, and they changed in ways that remained compatible. All I knew was that when I looked at Isobel, I could still see the girl in the kitchen, the young woman in the tree.

I could also see her at later points in our lives, when things got heavier: Isobel when Penny was little, wrecked by depression and sleepless nights. Isobel in her forties after Penny had grown up and left home, sitting on the sofa crying her eyes out, laying out before me her feelings of uselessness and abandonment.

She could have thrown me out, then. I could have left. Instead, I sat down with her on the sofa, and we held each other and we cried. And then we talked. And then we talked some more. And at some point, I probably made a dodgy joke and we laughed, and then we knew that we could find a way to keep going.

Lying next to her now, I pretended to look her up and down, even though all I could see of her was her face above the duvet, her dear, old-young Isobel face with the intense eyes.

‘You with that smoking body of yours?’ I said. ‘You’re never going to need new hips.’

Isobel rolled her eyes. ‘Well, obviously. But, purely hypothetically, what if I do?’

I gave her my best suggestive look.

‘Then we just have to do it standing up,’ I said. ‘And if that doesn’t work, there is always the fire brigade.’

Veronika Groke is an Austrian-born anthropologist and writer living in Wiltshire. Her stories have been published in Otherwise Magazine, Gramarye, and Gutter.