Short Fiction by Valerie O’Riordan.
‘Oh-KAY!’ Sandy Reyniss, MC of the inaugural Cleaverton Singles’ Night, smacked the lip of the bar with an empty bottle of Old Disreputable and yelled: ‘Are—yous—ready?’
Certainly we were. We, the Singles—corralled off from the other drinkers around a cluster of scarred little tables at the back of the pub—had been waiting far too long already. I drained my beer glass to the spittley dregs and felt—well, immediately I felt ill, but then a rare giddiness took over: okay, I thought, go!
‘All right!’ bawled Sandy. ‘You’ve got yer numbers! No cheating, yeah? Unfold yer destinies—,’ she raised the bottle, it glinted malevolently, she swung it back down, ‘—NOW!’
We uncrumpled our raffle tickets. Mine was number twelve. Pink. The men’s slips were blue. Already the papers were flying up like auctioneers’ paddles; the Singles waded into the puddle of lamplight beside the old cigarette dispenser to claim their matches. The woman nearest me, fifty-ish and draped in miraculous medals, blessed herself as a moustachioed man in waterproof overalls took her arm. The caravan of bachelors limped along, chinless in their cable-knit cardigans, and my anticipation wilted; I folded and refolded my ticket.
‘Twelve? Excuse me—you’re twelve, right?’
I raised my head.
A boy. A boy. I smiled stiffly and looked away—surely not me?—but when I glanced back he was still there, squinting at me, at my ticket. Then, round-shouldered and chubby, he dropped onto the stool vacated by Holy Mary, his arms tucked fatly to his sides.
‘So,’ he went, ‘you, uh, you look nice?’
I stared. What did he mean, nice? I was forty-one; I was in slacks; my eyes were bloodshot. Back at the shop I’d spent twenty minutes failing to spit-tease my hair into some semblance of a girlish proclamation. Was he mocking me—or did he think I was desperate? Well, I wasn’t—and it’s not like he looked nice, either. I examined his not-quite-white buttoned-up shirt, the splayed, hammy legs, the bright orange running shoes with their tumid tongues, and my nausea returned. I looked around for help, but Sandy, apparently the only barmaid on duty, had sloped off to pull pints—and meanwhile the boy was waiting for my reply. Finally, I went, ‘Well, I—’, but I couldn’t think how to follow it up and at last I just snapped my jaws back together and folded my arms.
He shifted in his seat. ‘Can I, uh, maybe get you something? Like a wine, or—?’
I hesitated, then shrugged. ‘Okay. Fine, yes. Please.’
He lumbered off. I felt itchy, skittish. Judged. Again I glanced around. Beside the fag machine, Holy Mary and her hairy-faced escort were exchanging parking fine grievances.
‘Next time,’ he said, picking up a saltcellar and ramming it against his pint glass for emphasis, ‘I’ll fuckin batter the cunt.’
She tittered and slipped a hand under the table to rub his Teflon-coated knee.
I whipped back around, my face hot, only to see my own date waddling my way already, his vast, grubby shirt drawing in like a storm cloud. He sat with a grating clatter and plonked a bottle of fortified tonic and a pair of plastic beakers in front of me.
‘They’d no wine-wine,’ he said, slopping us each a large measure and immediately gulping back half of his own. He shuddered and wiped his mouth. ‘So, I’m, uh, Gary?’
I took a sip and grimaced. ‘Emily.’
‘Cool,’ he said. ‘Emily. Nice.’
Silence. I took another sip, and another. Gary chewed his lip and drummed his foot against the table’s stem; his drink shivered. I refilled my cup and worked my way back down it. The other couples petted each other and tittered. I pushed the empty beaker away and licked my lips.
‘Gary,’ I said. ‘This, us—well!’ I smiled apologetically. He smiled back; I frowned. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘I’m going to make tracks. Best of luck, okay?’ I stuck out my hand but he didn’t take it; he just blinked.
‘What?’ He’d reddened. ‘But you can’t just, like, leave! That’s not fair, there’s rules!’
‘Rules?’ I withdrew my hand. ‘What rules? There’s no—’
His voice got higher and louder: ‘So you’re not even giving us a chance?’
A chance! I wanted to laugh. Why should I waste what few chances I had on him? I hadn’t agonized for an entire week over the bloody Singles’ flyer just to be yoked to some sulky—what did they call themselves? Millennials?
‘Just sit down,’ he was going.
‘Would you stop it?’ I hissed. ‘Would you just be quiet?’
‘Oh, excuse me!’ His squeak cut through the dour funk of the pub; I cringed as the Singles turned and glowered. Gary was almost spitting: ‘You think you’re something, do you? What are you? Fifty?’
‘Stop it!’ I was on my feet; I struggled with my jacket. I was disoriented, groggy from the tonic-wine, and I couldn’t work the sleeves—I gave up and squeaked back at him: ‘There’s no call to be rude!’
‘I’m not,’ he began, blanching, and then he exhaled. ‘Aw, shit.’ His cheeks were covered in a light membrane of sweat and the tendons in his neck were taut ridges beneath the folds of soft young fat. He scraped the damp strings of pale hair from his forehead. ‘I’m sorry, all right? That wasn’t—just, like, sit down, will you?’
‘I will not!’ I yanked again at the coat. The seam in the right shoulder gave way, but I tugged it on anyway and drew myself up. ‘I didn’t come here to be—abused!’
He blushed again and started to plead (‘Aw, man. Give us a chance, will you?’) but I was already shoving my way past the goggling Singles and out onto the landing, past the toilet queue—a wheezing line-up of hunched, thread-veined gents who whooped and leered at me as I wedged my way down the narrow hall. ‘Oh, fuck off,’ I snapped, and I grabbed at the bannister and swung myself around the corner, down the stairs and within sight of the door just as Gary erupted into the hallway, crying, ‘Emily, wait! Please!’
The old lads roared, delighted, and the same man hollered, ‘Watch out for that one, son, she’s fuckin dynamite!’
The door gave way and I pitched out into the wet, whining gully of wind that busted down the A6 corridor. There, at the crook of the road, past the run of defunct shops and unoccupied offices, was the flapping canopy of the Big Disco Bargain Store (the unts from Discount on the neon sign long since defunct). The snapping whomp of its canvas overrode the walloping beneath my ribs as I ran towards it: come on, I thought, Jesus, come on, before—
It took years to extricate the keys from my pocket, to dig in amongst the skittered litter, fag packets and torn pages from yesterday’s Manchester Evening News and find the padlock; an age to hoist the shutter and tackle the inner Yale and Chubb locks—but then I was in, alone, sagging against the sales counter, dripping rank streams of run-off onto the tiles. Crying.
The Cleaverton Singles! A shower of halfwit leftovers—and in the Glory Hole, too, for Christ’s sake! Who knew how many other people had seen me making a spectacle of myself—customers, neighbours? I could have—no, I should have—chummed up with my tax receipts all night like a proper fucking adult, not carried on like a common little hussy—
Shut up! I scrubbed furiously at my face and slapped the light-switch. With a click, the strips batted into a waspish glare, and the aisles, which had briefly extended into queer pockets of murk, baroque forms complemented by obscure, conspiring creaks, brightened. Far away, in the back office, the phone was ringing. Oh, give it up, I thought, it’s gone ten, but on it went until, still sniffling, I set off down through Household Goods.
The staffroom was small and clammy; it smelled like deodorant and old Stilton. Under the desk, hidden from the rest of the staff beneath a mound of overstock shower curtains and bath-mats, was my sleeping bag. I bent down to root it out, slung it over my shoulders, sat down. The Disco’s computer hulked on the desktop like a primordial troll. Beside it was piled ten years’ worth of tax ledgers, ready for next week’s audit, the paperwork ballasted by the bottle of sherry I’d begun that afternoon in order to grease my glorious career as a Single. Beside the desk was the mini-fridge: on top of that, the phone. As I reached for it, the ringing stopped. The red eye of the answering machine flashed: tape full. I picked up the sherry and took a slug, hit play.
‘Em? Jesus, Em, will you just pick up? I’m sick of—’
Eddie. I grimaced, then fast-forwarded:
—turned on your mobile then I wouldn’t—
—not trying to hassle you—
‘Like hell,’ I muttered; I pressed erase, but as soon as the machine bleeped confirmation, the phone rang again.
I snatched it up. ‘What?’
‘Oh, well, Christ.’ My ex-husband snorted. ‘How about, how are you, Ed? Oh, I’m grand, ta, and how’s—’
‘I’m not in the fucking mood, Ed, I’ve been—,’ I stopped and took another lengthy swill. But he wasn’t listening; he was blethering on about work—management controversies, union whatsits, blah-de-blah. I reached across the stack of ledgers to where I’d pinned the Singles flyer on the corkboard. I ripped it in two, then four, then crumpled the shreds and lobbed them at the bin. I missed. I stood up, unsteadily, and kicked the knots of paper—missed again. Almost fell. I rubbed my eyes, mumbled, ‘Shit.’
‘Right,’ said Eddie. ‘But it’ll be okay, see—Frankie’s got a cousin in Nottingham who’ll hook me up with a sofabed.’
‘What?’ I shifted the phone to my other ear. ‘Nottingham?’
‘Well—yeah. For the job, like? I just—’
‘The job? What—’
‘Jesus, Em!’ He sighed. ‘I just said—I’m transferred. Moving on, aren’t I? Like you’re always saying.’
‘Oh.’ I took another drink. Croaked, ‘Well. That’s—’
I’d stood up—I was pacing the tiny room, furious, the phlegm massing in my throat, my eyes hot: what was wrong with me? I’d wanted him out of my sight—cheating, lying arse that he was—hadn’t I?
‘I went out tonight,’ I said at last.
‘Out! On a—I went out.’
A pause. ‘With, like, a bloke?’
‘What? You’re the one—ah, fuck this.’ He coughed. ‘Lookit, Em, I could talk to Tony. I mean, if you—nothing’s in cement, like, and I could still, if you, uh—’
I dropped the receiver. Wrenched the phone’s plug from the wall-socket and grabbed for the sherry, but it seemed I’d already finished the bottle, and with an exhalation that was more like a mini-shriek, I staggered out instead onto the shop floor, out of sight of the phone and the blinking, whining answering machine—moving on! He’d betrayed me; I ought to be the one moving on, and yet here I was, ten to eleven on a Friday night, in Aisle One, Stationery and DIY, blubbering over fucking Eddie. Right across the road—I could see it through the front door I’d forgotten to close—a giant glossy billboard poster had gone up with my neighbour’s goody-goody face gurning out: Sharon Kelly for City Council: Kelly for Community! Sharon Kelly was recently divorced, too: she lived in the same crumbling terrace as I did, with the same colony of mice gnawing through our wiring, but she was on BBC Look North tonight, and here was me, at the Big fucking Disco, penned in by brittle gee-gaws, out-of-date biscuits, and bike-lights that wouldn’t fix to any actual handlebars, seeing out my forties the same way I’d wasted my twenties, alone in a damp staffroom with a gaffer-taped window-frame and rats in the ventilation pipes. What was wrong with me?
I’d spoken aloud. The words bounced back—wrong with me, wrong with me, wrong with me—and I took a startled step, stumbling over a mislaid carton of printer paper. Stupidly, I grabbed at the shelving unit to save myself from falling: it shifted under my weight and I swore. Our shelves were held upright by a miscellany of vice-clamps, elastic bands and duct tape; we’d been told off by Head Office about it enough times—health and safety, risk management code such-and-such—but since they’d not signed off on a re-fit budget, what could I do? So now as I jumped away, the unit rocked and a Hello Kitty sticker book slid, dropped, bounced off my forehead.
‘Piece of—!’ I kicked the lowest shelf: a pair of staplers and a packet of Jiffy bags fell down. One of the staplers burst open and the staples spilled onto the floor. I’d have to sweep that up. ‘Will I fuck,’ I muttered, thinking half the customers were too out of it to notice if they’d been stabbed through the sole, and I kicked the shelf again. A clamp jarred loose; a strut shifted. I glanced around—like Head Office had planted a spy behind the pyramid of one-ply toilet rolls!—and then I turned and gave the rack a ferocious fucking boot.
A cataract of rubber-topped pencils and Magic Markers and pots of PVA glue came crashing to the tiles, and rulers and markers and Cyrillic-labelled Tippex bottles and cartridges of Latvian printer ink. I grunted: there. The next aisle was Kitchenware. I ran at it. I stuck out my arm and swept stacks of dinner-plates and tea-cups, mug-trees and saucers and cake-tins and knives to the floor—a breadknife struck the edge of a shelf as it fell, and somersaulted, nicking the back of my hand so that blood spattered over the hummock of ceramic and Pyrex debris at my feet. I was out of breath. Buzzing. Now Automotive, with its sprocket and line wrench kits, vice grips, impact guns, cable ties, ice scrapers, drill-bits from Bleck & Docker and Fillips: fuck Automotive, I thought, and I set my back against the nearest shelf, dug in my heels and strained. The unit swayed, teetered, fell; it rammed Kitchenware, which toppled onto Stationery, and they all collapsed like a titanic set of dominoes, Stationery wobbling, then keeling slowly to hit the sales counter—it knocked the cash register and its assorted knick-knack baskets to the ground with a clang that made me scream in gratified fright: ‘There’s nothing bloody well wrong with me!’
And then another voice: ‘Hey! Hey—who’s there?’
I muffled another screech. Robbers, I thought, rapists, or Eddie, begging—crouching, my pulse walloping against my ribs, I snatched up the nearest weapon, an aerosol can of WD40, and advanced towards the front. It was a slow march through unstable terrain. The new topography of the store was crazed; rods of light knifed through a thicket of felled metal braces. Behind me, one of the rattraps arrayed on the back wall snapped, and then so did another and another in a chattering strafe. Under cover, I pounced; I rounded the head of the collapsed Kitchenware system and depressed my oil spray, screaming, ‘I’ll batter you! I’ll fucking batter you, you cunt—’
—and there was Gary, knee-deep and trembling in spilled Tupperware. Elbows propped on his cushiony knees, his hair drenched and raked across his crown like an elderly farmer’s. He flung up an arm, squawking, ‘It’s me, it’s me!’
‘Oh, Jesus Christ.’ I let the spray fall. ‘Gary? What—’
‘Your bag!’ He held it out—my old leopard-skin clutch, sopping with water and grease, looking like roadkill. ‘You l-left it. The lads in the pub said—,’ he tailed off, stared around. ‘What’s—? The racket, like—I thought somebody was butchering you.’ Then he looked more closely at me. ‘What happened your hand?’
I glanced down. I’d forgotten my knife wound: the flap of skin was white and ragged, and my hand and wrist and the cuff of my blouse were streaked with red.
‘It’s al right,’ I said, but he went, ‘No, look, give it.’ He’d already pulled a packet of scented tissues from his pocket. He held one against the gash and we both watched it turn slowly pink.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I have to just tidy—,’ and at the same time he went, ‘Earlier, like? I wasn’t trying to, you know, insult you.’
‘Right,’ I said
‘I mean you’re old, okay, but still.’ He picked a rubber cupcake tray and put it down again. ‘My Da’s away for the weekend and I thought, you know, if I met somebody, we could go back and—and I just wanted a nice, a nice time, and—’
‘Oh Jesus,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to cry.’
‘I’m not!’ He sniffed.
‘Well, just, stop it anyway, yeah?’
Of course he didn’t. After an awkward minute I reached out stiffly to pat the back of his hand. Snuffling, he flung his arms around my shoulders.
‘Oh!’ I said. ‘Well. There, there, now.’
Up close he smelt mildewed (the badly laundered poly-blend shirt) and cloying (the car-interior stink of cheap antiperspirant and the fortified wine), but his body was solid and warm; I gave him a cautious squeeze in return. He breathed out in a heaving, shaky rush, and his hands slid from my shoulders, to my ribs, to my hips.
‘Wait,’ I said, and he pulled back; his face crumpled.
‘Aw, shit. I’m—’
‘No, it’s just—I mean,’ I said, though again I couldn’t think what came next: what did I mean? Wasn’t this why I’d gone out tonight in the first place? Wasn’t this what I should be doing—as a Single? Wasn’t this what I’d told Eddie I was up to?
Gary squinted at me, and, quickly, I shut my eyes—there’s nothing bloody well wrong with me—and leaned over and kissed him. Weren’t we both after the same thing? So, okay, a dry, stiff bump with our teeth clicking, and Gary’s breath huffing with a muffled hiccup of surprise into my cheek. His tongue crammed itself in beside mine; he swaddled me in a wringing crush and moaned. ‘Aw, Emily—’
‘Shut up,’ I mumbled, though I’d let out a whimper of my own. One of his hands gripped my behind and the other started fiddling zealously with the tiny pearlescent buttons on my blouse: snagging thumbs, mumbled apologies—
‘Here,’ I went, ‘this,’ and I unzipped his fly and felt inside.
He gasped. ‘Aw, Jesus,’ he whispered, ‘aw Jesus, fuck—’
I tugged my slacks, the knickers, down over my hips and pressed his fingers against me; I shivered.
‘Here,’ his voice was quivery, ‘just give us a minute—’
‘Okay,’ I managed, ‘but—,’ as I snapped down the waistband of his boxers and pulled his, pulled it, out, ‘—wait—’
‘I know,’ I was breathless, ‘only just let me—,’ but he gave a strangled oomph and shoved me off. I fell backwards against the lopsided Kitchenware unit and a packet of J-Cloths dislodged itself from the ledge above and smacked the crown of my head as Gary cupped his hands to his groin. They came away gummy.
‘Fuck’s sake!’ I exclaimed, louder than I’d meant.
‘I said,’ he cried. His face had turned brick red—so, in fact, had all of his visible, roly-poly flesh, even the pleat of midriff left bare after he’d wrenched back up his pants. ‘I said hold on. Din’t I?’
Had he? I didn’t know. He was fucking off, though, getting it elsewhere, just like Eddie—pricks, the pair of them! I leaned back against the buckled frame of the Kitchenware shelves so he wouldn’t see me trembling, and watched as he retreated towards the door. One step, then another, his breathing noisy and rapid as a croupy child.
A child. My own breathing quickened as I stared: the navy trousers, the white socks, the dumpy arms folded defensively over his chest—how old was he? My Da’s away for the weekend. My brain whirred in a spew of nauseating lucidity.
Another step, and he’d have reached the door; another, and he’d have gone.
I hoisted my slacks and pinched the lapels of my blouse together. ‘Gary,’ I said, ‘Gary, wait. Please.’
He paused. Turned. His eyes were red and inflamed; the crotch of his, his, Christ, his school pants was stained wet.
I swallowed. ‘You won’t,’ I croaked, ‘I mean, you won’t—say anything? About this? Will you? Please?’
He stood there, inert, and then his head twitched minutely and he lurched out the door.
‘Wait!’ I heaved myself after him. ‘Gary!’
But he was out, and he didn’t look around, or even slow; doggedly, he careered away, the wind still yowling so raucously that even if he had shouted anything, I wouldn’t have caught it. I watched him duck into the bus shelter outside the boarded-up Polski Sklep. It wasn’t even three hundred yards away, but the skies were hawking down such freezing clots of sleet in his wake that, despite everything, I flinched from giving chase. I turned back, away from the rain, back to the Disco, to where the storage units lay askew, their shanks upset and spindly, the merchandise shattered, leaking, ruined.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, my voice shrill now. ‘It’s fine. I’ll just—’
What? Fix it? You idiot, I thought, you mad stupid bitch. My hand throbbed and my blouse was still half undone; I’d undressed a schoolchild and now I was staring dumbly at a slagheap of toiletries and earthenware. On the floor by my left foot was a tub of poster paint oozing red slurry; at the top of what used to be Aisle Two lay the headless remains of a ceramic Disney figurine in a regal gown, swamped in a puddle of spilled turpentine. And my fingerprints everywhere, of course. I can’t fix it, I thought, my chest aching; I can’t fix anything. So then what? I pictured the part-timers bursting in for the morning shift and, finding me here, filthy and exhausted, calling Head Office, and the pinstriped goons arriving then with my P45, the vice squad behind them ready to slap me in irons for vandalism or criminal damage or wanton fucking idiocy—
So, think! I swallowed hard. Destroy the evidence? Yes. Yes? Okay. I crouched and picked up a plastic lighter, part of the fallen register display. Destroy the evidence. I flicked its little wheel so that the mechanism snicked and softly flared. Cracked lengths of MDF, aerosol sprays, bottle after bottle of nail polish remover: the place would go up like a Catherine Wheel.
‘So do it, idiot,’ I whispered.
Snick. And the flame wavered, flared and caught as the turpentine snatched it; it spun outwards with a gasp, the fire racing through the remains of Automotive.
I exhaled—and then the last of the rattraps sprung with a merciless snap and I jumped, dropping the lighter: get out of here! Okay! But where was I supposed to go? This wasn’t The Fugitive! I was a forty-one year old businesswoman; I couldn’t just go off the grid in, where, Milton Keynes or Wigan, with the Greater Manchester Police posting E-FITS of my mug all the way up the M62—could I? My head thumped. Even my thoughts were shrill and ridiculous now, and the fire was leaping, draughts of scorching air gusting over me: get—the fuck—out!
I went to the door. A cab? But I’d no friends to take me in, no family I could trust, no alibi, and I wasn’t running howling to Eddie—and there weren’t any cabs in sight, anyway, were there? The bus, then? But the Stockport corridor line didn’t run this late. Did it? I squinted, and there, sure enough, was Gary, still waiting at the shelter for the bus to his dad’s, hunched alone and wringing wet—weeping under the leaky plastic shell, I supposed, the forlorn sod.
No, I thought, but the paint on the walls was bubbling, and the idea stuck. I leaned further out. Sharon Kelly’s sanctimonious mug glistened down at me. Kelly for Community. I’ll show her community, I thought, and I shouted, ‘Gary!’ I forced a wave. ‘Gary! Hello?’
My voice was hoarse and the wind tore at it, but he raised his head. I couldn’t read his expression. A wave of broiling air struck me and I lurched onto the path. ‘Gary,’ I shouted, ‘I’m sorry, please, wait for me,’ and I heaved myself towards him, as, haltingly, he smiled, and waved back.