Short Fiction by Alex Clark
Coming to Town was shortlisted for The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 15
The first night waiting outside the house was cold. To see in through the glass of the kitchen door he had to position himself half under a bush, and it was raining. His waterproof was cheap, not actually proof against the water. Drops ran down into his sweater. He focused on the wallet and the slick black phones lying in the warm glow of the kitchen light.
The next night the sky was clear. The ground was damp under his feet. The back gate was open – not just unlocked but standing open, almost as if he were welcomed – and so he didn’t need to touch a thing. Just slip in. He preferred it that way. It felt like he wasn’t really there. In the kitchen she was cooking something that steamed up the windows, softening the tacky coloured panel in the UPVC door into glowing church glass. Next door the blue lanterns strung through the trees flashed on, off, on, off, on-off-on-off-on-off. He hoped they wouldn’t let the dog out.
At eight her husband turned the key in the back door, and they took their plates through to the dining room. Fuck’s sake. The side window was open, but he wasn’t desperate enough to try climbing through there yet. The sink was underneath, with glasses and cutlery that would crash under his feet. He slid back through the gate, ignoring the garage security light as it clicked on. They were in the other side of the house now.
At home he could see the dog had gone crazy while he was out. The back of the door was covered in gouges.
‘Fucking idiot,’ he said, allowing it to rest its head on his knee.
Its teeth, bred for maiming bulls, poked out of its jaws and dribbled stringy drool onto the grey jersey of his trousers. He couldn’t bring himself to move it. There was only half a tin of food for it, but it didn’t make a fuss.
The third night he went low behind the car, as always: couldn’t be careless with the security light on the way in. The gate was standing open again. She was in the kitchen, pouring wine. She poured herself a big glass, drank half straight off, poured again. Later, while she made dinner, she opened the back door to let the vapour out and seemed to notice the night for the first time. When she stepped out he froze, but the transition into dark had blinded her. She looked up to the reflected yellow on the clouds above and breathed in deeply. Then she closed the door. At eight she turned the key in the lock and took the food through.
He began to wonder why he was bothering. There were others on his list. Number 31, for example, and number 4. Tatty wooden gates, easy access. But this place was familiar now, oddly comforting. Some nights when she opened the door the sound of music drifted out. Always ballads. When she bent down to put the scraps in the outside compost bin, the top of her head looked small and vulnerable. He could have hit her from where he stood, taken a wrench or a bat and brought it right down on her head and slid out the back like a ghost and no-one would have been any the wiser. It worried him. When she locked the door he left quietly and closed the gate behind him, dropping the iron latch gently so that it didn’t clang. Shut was better than nothing.
The morning after the third night, he saw her on the drive. It shouldn’t have been a shock, but when she met his eye he felt like ducking.
‘Hello,’ she said, freeing one hand from the bundle in her arms to wave.
‘Hello Frankie,’ she said to the dog, and it pulled towards her on its lead.
He felt her eyes on his face, noting its yellowness, the lines of his bones beneath it. He was aware of the blue web round his right eye, still visible even though it had been a week since Frankie’s barrel body, too keen to get out the front door, had tripped him down the stairs. She crunched her eyes against the dead-white glare of December and he saw her think about saying something. She didn’t, though. He understood. She didn’t even know his name. The dog’s, yes, but not his. There was more than just a few metres of gravel between them, and so she raised her hand in a half-goodbye and turned towards the car. He glimpsed the baby wrapped in her arms, just a pink face in a bundle of white cloth. It was always there at night, of course, he just didn’t see it. He wondered what he missed, before he arrived and after he left. The other things that always were: the bathroom window lit yellow, the nursery blind scrolling down. The landing lamp flicking on as she climbed the stairs to listen to a small body breathing in the dark.
The fourth night he changed his position, tucking himself into the lee of the back porch. He couldn’t see in, but he could hear the lock. The wind was up, and the air had that impassive menace that promised snow. On nights like this, in the past, he had wondered if prison would be better. You could survive, though, if you developed the skill of separating your mind from your body. You made it so it wasn’t happening. The army had taught him that. His father, and the army. It wasn’t happening.
They ordered takeaway that night and no-one unlocked the door at all. He ran home to stay warm.
The fifth night, he steeled himself. He was fucking about. He had to get the fucking money. Fuck whether they were nice or they had a baby. If they didn’t leave the door unlocked he’d try the window.
In the bin was a carrier bag decked in Santa figures and holly, which he retrieved and pushed into his pocket as a reminder not to come away empty-handed. He pulled one of the last cans out of the fridge (it’s not happening) and drank it on the way to the house.
In the bush outside, he watched her flap the haze from boiling rice into the night air. Then the door into the kitchen opened and the man was there, bringing with him the sound of a child’s roar from somewhere within the house.
‘He won’t stop crying,’ he shouted, slamming a bottle half-full of milk onto the counter, and she hissed,
When she had gone, the man closed the kitchen door behind her and lifted his phone. He walked to the back door and stepped out into the dark.
‘Hi,’ he said quietly, ‘no, don’t. Don’t, Bec. I can’t help it. Harley’s ill.’ He scuffed at the gravel of the yard with his shoe, short violent jabs, leaving little gouges in the ground.
‘It’s nothing to do with that. I just can’t. Look, you’ve got to stop calling me, OK? Text is safer.’ Behind him the rice boiled over, a perpetual fountain of grey-brown sludge roiling onto the hob top.
‘Yeah. All right. Yeah, love you too. Bye.’
Perhaps because of the fuss with the baby, she didn’t turn the key when she took their food through. She didn’t even close the back door, or turn off the lights. He simply pushed, and he was in.
The radio was on, playing Christmas songs. Under the fluorescent strip he felt like a roadie stepping out onto the star-ready stage. The air was humid and smelt of sweet-and-sour. On the hob the rice scum still lay in a drying pancake, and by the sink stood the baby’s bottle. The sight of it, the teat still wet from the child’s mouth, gripped his chest with fear. For a moment he was outside himself, looking down and thinking oh fuck what have you done, and the next minute the bag was out of his pocket and in went the phones, the wallet, the purse, the MP3, a watch, the change. He realised that he wasn’t even making an effort to be quiet. He was operating his arms like his body was a puppet: sweep, sweep, sweep, everything into the crackling plastic. Out of the back door, through the gate. Run down the side of the car, security light on, too late, onto the road. Running running running like he had been trained to do, it’s not happening, it’s not happening, in through the front door.
Later he sat watching Frankie eat. There had been nearly forty pounds in the wallet. It had bought him fish and chips and a six-pack, Frankie four tins of dog food with a proper name and real meat. There was still money left, and the phones would fetch more. Her phone was the more expensive of the two; newer, with a pin number. Someone would be able to sort that out, though. The second phone was more basic, the kind you didn’t think people had any more. It was easy to open it and scroll through it.
The other woman was listed as ‘Don (work)’. There were texts going back a year:
last night was amazing cant wait 2 feel you inside me again xxx
she never reads my texts babe not that kind of marriage ha ha.
There was a gap in the middle, around the time the baby must have been born. Then they started up again.
He sat on his bony sofa, the alcohol opening all the gates in his brain and letting the good stuff in. When the booze glow enveloped him, turning off the endless hectoring babble, softening and soothing him, he wondered if it felt like love. Big arms wrapping round him and holding him close. The phone could buy him two, maybe four hours of glow. Two, maybe four hours in which he wouldn’t need to tell himself that it wasn’t happening, because it really wouldn’t be. That was worth having, at this time of year, when the radio played Christmas songs and the cheerful trees in peoples’ yards flashed on-off-on-off-on-off.
u booked NYE lover???
she wont want 2 do anything anyway lol :-).
The carrier bag lay by his foot, empty and sagging, a warped Santa peering up at him. He could put the phone into it, go back, shove it through their front door. He could find an envelope somewhere and write her name on it, make sure she got it. He could claim he found it in a hedge and give it back to her. He could make sure it was displaying one of the texts.
He remembered the woman’s face, squinting into the winter sun, plump and clean, comfortable. He imagined himself in front of her, his eyes searching hers. She would be putting the baby into the car, perhaps, or gathering up dead leaves in the garden, the little white monitor clipped to her belt. She would stop and turn towards him. Would he hold out the bag, its cheap cargo hanging like a grenade? Or would the few metres of gravel and the whole world between them cause him, too, to turn away in defeat?
In a few minutes, at any rate, none of it would matter. The glow was coming up through his chest and enveloping his head now: the moment between the world being warm and the world going swimmy, when he knew he should stop but never did. He turned on the radio, able to bear its chirpy tones for the first time in weeks.
When he reached down for the next tin he found the furry red hat that they’d given him for free at the off-licence. Some kind of promotion. He pulled it onto his head and lay full-length on the sofa, Frankie hauling herself up for a drooly sleep on his legs. The radio sang about not shouting and not crying, about Santa coming to town. After a while, he did too.