Surely so jubilant a word, Ken mused, should be rainbow-coloured, glitter-sprinkled, flower-garlanded and audibly Hosanna-ing. Yet, rather than whooshing high into the stratosphere, it was sitting in prim silence on several successive pages of Tesco’s glossy Gift Guide. Nonetheless, he had noticed it, if only for its frequency: six sightings in the guide, so far: first, embroidered on a scatter-cushion; then blazoned on a coffee-mug and on a blue enamelled plaque; next, as three separate letters suspended from a silver chain and, one page on, interspersed with the word ‘peace’ on a roll of festive wrapping paper and, finally, the shout-line on various Christmas decorations.
And, despite the lack of garlands and glitter, those three letters seemed to him the very essence of excess. Joy was a foreign country, as far beyond simple pleasure or contentment as Mount Everest was above Box Hill. A cup of coffee in Starbucks could afford a sense of enjoyment, a new library book even induce well-being, but joy spectacularly outsoared them, comprising, as it did, elements of ecstasy and bliss.
Closing the guide, he decided to make himself a cup of tea, inspired by the polka-dotted Tesco’s teapot, with its scarlet lid and spout. Since he had never owned any sort of teapot, he resorted to his usual cheapo teabag dumped in a plain white mug and, while waiting for the kettle to boil, continued to reflect on joy. Had he ever felt it and, if so, why and when? Not for decades, certainly. There was little in his current job in the back office of a recycling centre to cause his pulse to race or his heart to flutter, and, after work, it was straight home, most nights, to his cramped and lonely flat. Even on his pub evenings, joy was hard to come by, what with the inflated price of beer, the ever-increasing decibel-count of what passed there for music, and his colleagues’ habit of rarely allowing him a word in edgeways. Fine for them to label him ‘the quiet one’, when they never gave him a chance.
He took his tea back to the kitchen table, along with a couple of digestives, ruefully aware that, if he sought joy on the biscuit front, he should replace drab, workaday digestives with chocolate-coated, cream-filled confections, sumptuously basking in gold foil. Munching his modest, no-frills biscuit, he tried transforming every bite into heavenly ambrosia – not easy, when it was dry and semi-stale.
However, he did strike gold when, still in search of joy, he began taking stock of his childhood and, suddenly, miraculously, a few long-forgotten memories exploded into life. Yes, he had felt joy, as a six-year-old, at his first sight of the sea – a sea stretching away, away, away, into a far-distant bluey mist, yet which also kept rushing forward in frantic, foamy frills, to thresh around his legs. And, five years later, when he landed his first fish off Brighton Pier, the experience had definitely been joyous. Admittedly, he’d caught only a small pout-whiting, but it was still a source of secret pride; making him almost equal to the gnarled old anglers hunkered down beside him, with their impressive hauls of plaice and dab. Then, two years on, he was fishing again, this time by the River Wey, when he had actually spotted a real live adder swimming right towards him, in a wriggly but determined manner, as if wanting to join him on the bank and whisper something mysteriously snaky into his waiting ear.
But, after that, joy had seemed to vanish. Adolescence brought bashfulness and blushes, acne outbreaks and a new, treacherous voice that kept plunging disconcertingly from baritone to squeak. As for girls, humiliation had been more the general theme than any sort of bliss. And, as the years rolled on and somehow he’d reached fifty-five, still with scant success, it was clear that he had ‘missed the boat’, to use his sister Tessa’s phrase. Tessa, in contrast, was happily married with a brood of kids and grandkids, and a husband so faithful and attentive, he resembled a soppy but devoted Labrador.
On impulse, he grabbed his mobile and, after the usual dutiful preliminary enquiries about the health of her numerous tribe, put the crucial question: had she ever experienced joy?
‘Joy?’ she repeated, sounding a little nonplussed.
‘Yes, joy, the real McCoy – it even rhymes, you see! I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill contentment, but something more akin to rapture.’
‘Oh, I see. Yes, definitely!’