New Friends to Build a Backbone


Short Fiction by Alun Evans

 

1.

She is gripping Eddie’s wrist tight, an affectionate Chinese Burn to remind him how loved he is.

‘Work okay?’ she asks. ‘Treating you kindly?’

Not wanting to disappoint his mother, Eddie resorts to fabricating elongated stories about his Cancer Research colleagues, about how kind and unassuming they all are. He mentions George — Chemo patient at 23, now in partial remission — who has shown him how to work the till properly, to ring through the second-hand purchases like a supremely well-oiled charity machine. Ching ching! He doesn’t mention Michelle, the septuagenarian boss who repeatedly strokes at his hair, at his arms, at other more delicate parts of him, when the shop is empty.

‘Oh, sounds just about lovely,’ his mother coos, releasing her vice-like grip and stroking his arm in an absent-minded manner that is not all that dissimilar to Michelle’s very own stroking technique. Goosebumps.

Eddie’s father is sunken in his armchair across the room — the light from the window dull and vapid on his shadowless face. On his lap sits a greasy-looking plate of egg and chips. He’s spooning the dripping concoction up into his small, pursed mouth, his lips open ever so slightly to accept the food. As he eats/drink-slurps, he stares greedily at the Sky TV set-up showing unending repeats of Eggheads, the popular British gameshow where contestants are pitted against the eponymous crew of the show, a bunch of tightly smug bastards who delight in demonstrating how much general knowledge they have locked up within those yolky craniums. Eddie knows that his old man can watch endless repeats of Eggheads, and in fact that he prefers the repeats to the originals, when he is able to shout out answers to the screen and the room in general and — depending on whether his diluted memory is functioning correctly that day or not — he can bark out the correct answers before either Eggheads or contestants get there first, his father’s wet eyes scouring the room for witnesses to this gross parody of genius.

‘Ham and eggs?’ his mother says then, looking into Eddie’s eyes with an expression that could — if circumstances were so marginally different — be misconstrued, in its own way, as an expression of desire.

‘Not too hungry now, mum,’ Eddie replies, causing the bulky woman in her flowery dress to shiver and slap a palm across her heart (i.e. presumably where her heart, underneath all the excess fat, is still located). She does this as if she’s just been shot at point-blank range.

‘I’m off upstairs,’ he says quickly, before the lamentations and guilt-tripping can come raining on down.

And that’s exactly where he does go: upstairs to his bedroom, wedging his desk chair under the door handle and being as quiet as is humanly possible to be up there. Quiet as a fucking mouse. Squeak.

 

2.

Impossible, but the wasp is trapped in-between the two panes of glass constituting Eddie’s double-glazed bedroom window. It’s buzzing madly, this nutter wasp, headbutting first one pane then the next. Over and over. Eddie’s trying to concentrate on The Walking Dead, but this dumb insect isn’t making Eddie’s commitment to the AMC zombie apocalypse series so easy, and he pauses his laptop and sits up on his bed, eyeing the fizzing troublemaker with all the venom he can muster (not much). The wasp is average-sized, a fat old stinger stuck disproportionately onto the arse-end of its furiously vibrating body.

‘I just wanna see Rick fuck up Shane,’ Eddie tells the wasp quietly, in a kind of whisper-moan, as the world’s background forms sunlight and blue sky and grey endless motorway behind the battered insect’s inefficient escape strategy. In response to Eddie’s weak plea the wasp once again headbutts the windowpane, the sudden impact causing it to calm down momentarily. It rests its heaving body against the sill, humming gently to itself. Like a human being would pant themselves calm after a particularly hysterical fit. Downstairs, as accompaniment to this humming, Eddie’s mother is calling for him; she is always calling for him. 

 

3.

Bastien is walking home from Stockwell Underground after visiting Harriet. He’s feeling all A-level basics existential at that moment, because that’s what the rush hour Tube does to him every time, what with all those blank faces looking sombre, ghoulish, unexcited, suicidal. Bored. Suicidal. Ghoulish. 

Across the street from the tube entrance are three beggars lined up in a row, which strikes Bastien as odd because isn’t there some kind of homeless etiquette where you don’t encroach on another’s spot? Where you don’t over-saturate the market?

Thinking whether he might ask the three homeless men about such things, Bastien crosses the road and aims himself in the direction of the crumbled trio. But then, as he approaches, he registers how unlined their faces are, how nourished and healthy their bodies appear to be. And now he smells expensive aftershave, clouded around the three men like an indistinct and nebulous forcefield. None of the beggars have cups or hats or open dirty hands, and none of them are asking for anything from anyone. All they are doing is staring straight up at him with clear eyes, and there’s something malevolent in the slow upturn of their rising grins, something unified and powerful as Bastien reaches them. 

And then the cleanest, most ferocious looking of the three, opens his mouth to speak through perfect dental work. This is what he says:

 

4.

Harriet is beat, literally beat, after Bastien’s visit. She’s cooking up some good old-fashioned tomato soup on the hob while still wearing last night’s fetish gear underneath her nightie. Her housemate Sara is in the living-room, dancing along to an Aerobics DVD where Davina McCall encourages her to pump away at those abs. Pump away girls! Davina is pulling a nuclear smile that is downright frightening to behold, and holding the exact same pose Bastien struck last night, because why not when you’re tripping off your face and decide it’ll be a funny idea to put the housemate’s exercise DVD on and squat inches from the telly screen until you can’t stand it no more, until you start screaming for salvation from this unholy Beelzebub smile? 

Sara’s still a bit sore with Harriet having Bastien stay over, on account of all the 3am shroomed biblical screaming that didn’t stop until a floaty, morphine-slugged Harriet finally saw the sense in turning it off the telly, the paralysed Bastien thus released from the magnetic hold of the McCall smile and being handhold-led by Harriet up to the bedroom/amateur dungeon for a timid bit of S&M — dominance asserted and then swapped over halfway through the roleplay, as was regular habit for the two fuck-buds. 

  ‘Thought you might want a bowl.” Harriet enters the room sheepishly, eyes averted from the constantly mobile Davina, offering Sara her gross approximation of olive branch: the average-smelling yet nostalgia-provoking soup consisting of canned plum tomatoes, tomato puree, ketchup. The soup is almost radioactive in its colour. No matter what the colour or potential, no one eats soup when exercising.

Nonetheless, Sara lycra-swivels round to face Harriet and, seeing her friend’s expression, forces a smile out through her sweat. It is a smile that is full on dripping and totally sincere, for how can she remain angry at a girl who looks so innocent, so wide-eyed and impressionable, so kittenish coquettish in her shifty-footed demeanour? 

The two girls hug without saying another word. Sara can feel the studs of Harriet’s leather bra poking out through the duvet fabric of her grandma’s hand-me-down nightie. She assumes the hilly curvatures she discerns are indications of bone, knobs of spine (poor Harriet needs to start eating better). As Sara’s feeling and thinking all this, Harriet holds the bowl of soup aloft behind Sara’s own drenched and muscular back, hoping to God that none of the boiling-hot soup will come spilling out from the bowl, causing third-degree burns on Sara’s pretty freckled shoulders. That would surely neutralise the make-up. Yes, it would. Because no one enjoys third-degree burns down their back when they’re trying to exercise. No one.  

 

5.

Marcus is trawling through the skips at the back of the charity shop enclave out at Crystal Palace. Because the skips are so huge and so full of valuable yet not quite distinguishable junk, he has climbed into one of the biggest, turtle-coloured skips and is searching through – knee-deep or waist-high — everything that some people don’t want, have replaced and updated with bigger, better approximations of what they originally wanted. Of what they now want as substitute to earlier wants.

As Marcus is flicking through a ginormous stash of rippling old Beanos, sniggering — ironically (kind of) — along at the homophobic characterisation of Dennis the Menace’s arch-nemesis, Walter the Softie, he hears the rumble of car engine. Because the skips are located in the corner of the shopping centre’s car park, and because he’s smoking a giant, ridiculous-looking spliff, and because he’s as paranoid as shit from the high-grade hydophonic skunk encased neat and tight within this cartoonishly incriminating spliff, he leans over the back of the skip and he pulls at the giant metallic lid attached to one side. The plan will be to encase himself as neatly as the powdery skunk is enfolded in the triple Rizla ensemble: protection through avoidance. Total ninja style. 

What Marcus fails to do is crouch down low enough to allow the lid to slam shut fully in the smooth, stealth-like operation he had planned. Due to this fundamentally insane dyspraxic error, he receives a great cracking, neck-loosening-but-not-quite-breaking blow to the top of his thinning haired dome. Doosh. Or rather: DOOSH! Eyes flashing with what might as well be described as a dancing halo of stars or cheeping cartoon birds. After this almighty wallop, Marcus is now hammered in low enough to no longer act as a fleshy barrier for the lid’s trajectory, and the lid falls back down into place, shutting neatly and securely in place with a satisfied thump. 

What Marcus doesn’t realise until he’s finished smoking up his spliff — consciously hotboxing himself in the skip so as to try and soothe the pounding, almost life-threatening injury he has just inflicted upon himself – is that these kinds of fatboy bastards, once shut, end up locking automatically and can only be reopened with a strange alien-shaped key from the outside. Or maybe the key doesn’t look so much like an alien as it does a thick and chunky crucifix. 

Approximately four of the current charity shop employees have one of these weird-shaped keys in their individual possession. On this warm late Wednesday afternoon, not one of these employees is working. The managers keep insisting that all keys be kept on site and never — repeat, Never — be taken off the premises by employees, just in case, god forbid, someone might lock themselves in one of the giant skips. It just so seems, as is commonplace in most menial low-paid jobs, that none of the employees of the charity shops really listen to what their respective managers have to say regarding this important Health & Safety topic. These constantly berated, underpaid, easily interchangeable employees, their brains are flashing over their lost loves of yesteryear, their hoped-for romances of the near future; or else their eyes are chock-a-block for the weekend that will entail a neat selection of designer drugs and frantic dancing and all manner of milquetoast debauchery lasting until Sunday evening’s deadline; or else they are concentrating on their own sweet frustrations, their own minor disappointments with this life; or else they are currently locked in their chosen self-contained spaces, with glass-imprisoned wasps for company as they binge-watch post-apocalyptic AMC box-sets whilst their mentally unstable mother calls desperately to them from down the bottom of the stairs.

‘Eddie, my love!’

 

6.

Even though Bastien’s got these residual feelings of complete existential doom after the tube trip and then the whole brawling debacle-fiasco with the beggars who turned out not to be beggars at all, but to be drunk yuppies from the city who decided it’d be a laugh to force-swap their Saville Row whatever suits with three homeless men they found on the mile-long stagger back from Vauxhall; even after all this and then the night and morning and next night lay-up easing the pain of where the three drunk-rich brutes had belted Bastien black-and-blue after he’d accused them of not being ‘street-people’ at all, of being pretenders with incriminating cleanliness and healthy-looking faces/dental records to prove it; even after all this and the fading remnants of the amateur S&M session with Harriet and then said sweet Harriet giving him a call that following day and informing him — with Davina McCall soundtrack bouncing victoriously along in the background and Sara right there, no doubt, giving the thumbs-up or a reassuring stupid smile — that they should maybe cool it for at least a bit so they could focus on their own individual priorities for a while (like, what priorities?). Yes, even after all of this bloody dominoed nonsense, Bastien has still not really wondered where his housemate Marcus might be hiding, and why he hasn’t seen him bumbling around their shared two-bedroom Brixton flat in the last couple of days. And why would he, really? Everyone’s got their own problems. Fuck off with yours.

 

7.

When Eddie finds Marcus, the dude doesn’t seem all that tortured or deprived or anything. He looks more just like a sleepy ghost who’s had his haunting duties temporarily suspended: a dole-dossing Casper. 

All the same, it still gives Eddie a fright, seeing this human being inside the skip, and it takes a moment for his heart to stop pounding out tunes in his ribcage and to convince himself that this isn’t The Walking Dead, no matter how many hours he’s spent exclusively in this reality of his bedroom with the makeshift lock of wedge-in chair, fending off his own zombified mother’s endless pleading requests to come eat with the family (and with the fatty crucifix key, yes, wedged in the otherwise defunct condom pocket of his torn-up Levis splattered on top of his mountain of clothes, Levis which he didn’t put on again until his next shift that Tuesday morning, patting at the pockets and having that brief-but-not-too-worrying stab of anxiety when he realised that Michelle – sleazy and aggressively tactile old lady Michelle — would be back on with the fucking touchy-feely molestation warpath now that he’d forgotten to hang the key back up in its rightful spot on that hook just above their computer in the office).

‘Didn’t you try banging to let someone know you were in there?’ Eddie asks Marcus after he’s pulled him out of the skip. Eddie’s got his head turned slightly away from the dishevelled Marcus, because there’s this very odd smell coming off the young man, something like mould and marijuana mixed into a smoothie you drink through your nose instead of your mouth.

Marcus squints at Eddie, waiting for his eyes to readjust to the daylight. ‘I don’t know,’ he says slowly. ‘I figured someone would be along soon enough.’ He pauses, taking in the scarecrow effigy constituting Eddie’s physical appearance. ‘And here you are: someone,’ he says uncertainly.

‘But you could’ve been out a lot sooner if you’d’ve just hollered?’ Eddie says, conscious now of this being maybe the only time in his entire life when he has taken the initiative in a conversation, and actually felt like he was the one who should, and probably could, would, lead what was going to happen next.

Marcus shrugs. ‘I guess I wasn’t bothered enough,’ he says, sincerely sounding to Eddie that he wasn’t that bothered about asking for help, not at all. In fact, kind of sounding like he wished he were still in the skip, not being pestered with questions which he can’t readily provide the answers for. 

 

8.

The Eggheads are losing to their giddy everyman competitors and Eddie’s dad is beyond himself, feeling such an affinity for these nervously shaking common folk that his eyes are welling up, are threatening to spill over onto his egg and chips. His zoned-out focus prevents him from ascertaining his wife’s fragile mental state as he yells out the final remembered answer before anyone else gets a chance, looking wildly around the empty room for witnesses to his intellectual prowess.

‘Fuck sake,’ he whispers into the onslaught of the TV’s deafening volume, a delicate strand of white-yellow yolk beginning to congeal on his stubbled chin. ‘Never there when you want ‘em, always there when you don’t.’

 

9.

Bastien is playing Grand Theft Auto 5 when Marcus finally returns home. The porcelain Mickey Mouse clock — not to be trusted — asserts that it’s 5.48pm. Bastien’s got his headset on, is alternately cursing at, heckling, and then lecturing a twelve-year-old boy (or that’s what Timmy2004 claims he is, at least) on the intricacies and paradoxes (as Bastien puts it) involved in post-pubescent, casual inter-gender affairs (as Bastien also puts it). 

Occasionally, Timmy2004 will try and redirect Bastien’s focus back to the game and their current co-op killing spree, but Bastien’s not to be deterred, and as his character flies around aimlessly in a helicopter above a sunlit mountain range being chased by numerous SWAT teams, he tells Timmy2004 that he should never ever trust two girls who live together, because they will one day form a whole — a hybridised fucking demigod, if you will — and they will crush poor little Timmy2004’s teeny weeny pre-pubescent heart into so much squish that it will resemble a poorly-made and not-at-all appetising tomato soup. 

When Marcus opens the door, beckoning Eddie to follow him in, Bastien is saying ‘… we were the kind of folks who did anal least twice a week, just to make sure all the cogs were running smoothly. All that good stuff: tea bagging, handballing, squirting, spanking, pegging, rimming, crushing; all the showers: golden, brown, Roman, you name it. And you know: BDSM, CBT, DAP, ATM — you’ll learn the acronyms when you’re older little dude, don’t worry ‘bout it for now… Plus the only times we ever argued was when it was a choice between The Wire or Breaking Bad, and even then, of course, it was just one of those middle-class sarcastic meta-arguments that’s so fully aware of itself as a ridiculous argument — we’re both smirking and stoned and staring at each other’s smirks as we do the yelling, y’know what I mean? — that it isn’t even really to be classified as anything like a falling out at all. In short, we were tight as a witch’s arsehole, you understand me?’

Beside the deckchair Bastien is sprawled in — fully reclined so that he has to bend his neck at a very-painful angle to observe the onscreen police chase — is a 1-litre bottle of Jamesons. From what Marcus can see from the doorway, the bottle doesn’t look much in the way of full, or half-full, or even semi-full. In fact, it’s pretty much empty.

‘I made a new friend,’ Marcus says, addressing the TV.

When he hears his housemate’s voice, Bastien gives a brief shudder from his horizontal position, then tries to pause GTA 5 but can’t quite manage the operation. Instead, he scoops off his headset and, wearing it as an occasionally vibrating necklace, yells ‘Marcus! You’re here even though you’ve been nowhere? Who dis?’ He points a wriggling arm in the vague direction of Marcus. It would be a threatening gesture if the arm weren’t so disjointed in its aim.

Marcus steps aside and delivers Eddie into the room. ‘This is the guy I met, my new friend’ he says. ‘He’s wicked, man, works at Cancer Research. The one at Crystal Palace?’

‘The one you’re always thieving from?’

Marcus glances sheepishly at Eddie. “It’s not really stealing if you’re just going through what they’re already chucking out, Bastien.’

Bastien considers this statement while pulling a puzzled expression at the bottle of Jamesons. ‘Shhhure. Whatevs Trevs.’ His eyes light and he suddenly grins back at the pair. ‘I made a new pal too, so it looks like we’re both in the social hot-zone right now. Check us out: full-bloodied socialites, woah mama! Nothing’ll stop us now motherfucker!’ 

Eddie has skirted crab-like into the living room and is now trying to sit down on the edge of a coffee table parked in one corner. The coffee table is creaking a bit, and it’s just low enough to prevent Eddie from actually sitting on the table. It’s more like he’s just barely squatting or hovering above it, his bottom a few centimetres above where it should be. Even so, for reasons of his own, he maintains this pose – his chicken thighs shaking with the effort – and for that Bastien mentally gives him respect. Marcus has found a good egg right here, he thinks.

‘Shit man, I’m stoked for you dude,’ Marcus says, going to the kitchen to get out beers: one for him, one for Eddie (Bastien can do without). ‘We could, like, play some cards or something? Shithead? Where’s your own dude at? In the lavvy?’

Eddie smiles weakly at Marcus as he’s passed the bottle of condensate-shielded Bud. And then he looks down the dark hallway where Marcus’ intrigued expression is focusing. Are these guys, like, gay? Eddie is thinking to himself. And then: If they are, will they still wanna be friends with a heterosexual, or will I have to pretend to them? Join in? Have my first gay orgy? And then: Because they seem pretty cool with their own sweet pad and the Xbox One and they have American beers waiting in the fridge all cool and shit. And then: It’s not like I’m homophobic or anything, ‘cause if that’s what these guys wanna do then okay it’s totally cool with me, it’s just, like, what are the prerequisites for friendship in this kind of situation? And would they be able to tell if I faked my first gay orgasm?

‘Nah,’ Bastien says, chuckling and disrupting Eddie’s neurological processings. ‘My boy Timmy ain’t in the lav-a-tory jackanory. Lookie, he right here,’ he says, pointing at the TV screen. 

Marcus moves over to stand beside the deckchair, chugging on his beer and staring at the TV.

‘You see ‘im?’ Bastien says. ‘He’s that one riding the BMX with the big fuck-off bazooka strapped on his shoulder. You see him there? Total wazzock.’

‘Oh yeah, cool,’ Marcus replies. But really he’s lying, because he can’t see any character onscreen that is either riding a BMX or else brandishing a rocket launcher. What he can see is a helicopter crash-landed on a mountainside, in flames, with the blood red font Wasted across the screen. 

‘Woah, is this the new Grand Theft Auto?’ Eddie asks, staring at a three-stringed guitar that’s been affixed to the wall with gaffer tape.  

‘It’s not that new,’ says Bastien sadly, turning his own bent neck to stare at whatever Eddie seems so interested in all of a sudden. ‘It’s super fucking old.’ Bastien frowns. ‘You been living under a rock?’

 

9.

Harriet’s sharply painted neon pink fingernails scroll along the pages of her phone, regurgitating the life and times of her on-off-on-off two-year relationship with Bastien. There are plenty of flash-highlighted smiles and plenty of photographic evidence of amateur deviance in the timeline, and for that Harriet is eternally grateful. 

‘You just caught him at a bad time,’ she is saying to Sara as she continues to scroll through the highlights of her stored memory. She pauses on a pic of Bastien grinning widely into the cameraphone, both of his cheeks smouldering with freshly slapped palm-prints. ‘He’s actually got a lot going for him.’

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Sara says, unconvinced by Harriet’s wistful character reference. She is still exercising to Davina, her muscles burning in the centre of the small room with a rage that will never be spoken out loud. 

 

10.

When Eddie gets home, he’s three-beers drunk and floating happy and his mother is waiting for him in the kitchen with a worried look compressing up her jowly face. When Eddie sees her, the first thing he thinks is: Why are worried mothers always waiting for their erstwhile sons in the kitchen, when it would be much more comfortable and still logistically possible to await the wayward son’s return in front of the telly in the living room? 

Eddie’s mother looks at him with that face of hers, all expensive make-up and hanging bulldog jowls. ‘Where were you love?’ she almost screams. ‘Yer dad was starting to worry after you.’

Eddie scans the room in a slow, pointed manner, his eyes scathing. This newly experienced drunkenness, it turns out, is like some sort of previously untapped, superhuman strength… ‘And he was so worried it sent him off to bed, did it?’

His mother is horrified. Never in her life! Her eyes wrinkle, her hands wrinkle, her whole body wrinkles. ‘Oh Eddie,’ she cries, rushing her substantial bulk up the stairs in a way that can only be described as Soap-Opera-Melodrama-esque. 

Her stomps recede like a wounded rhinoceros, no doubt waking up his poor old dad in the process, as Eddie remains standing in the middle of the room, clenching his small fists and smiling widely. Never again, he tells himself, will he run up the stairs after his hysterical mother. Never again will maternal comfort be his primary concern. Eddie suddenly feels very much like Walter White, post meth dealing enlightenment. Or else he’s Rick Grimes, yes, that’s it – leader of the clan and sentient decider of his own fate.

Pigeon-chest puffed up ahead of him, he strides over to the fridge and yanks open the door. There are no beers and he should’ve already known this. Instead, there is a pack of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference lemon yoghurts. He gets two of these out of the fridge and washes a spoon in the sink. He rips off the lid of one of the yoghurts and licks at the excess slop. Upstairs he can hear his mother yelling at his father, lamenting what has become of their only son. She is using words like ‘rogue’ and ‘delinquent’. When he sneaks upstairs and heads into his bedroom, the wasp is still there, still headbutting itself against the glass, its buzzing body quieter than Eddie remembers.

Eddie watches the wasp for a while. And then he fucking ends it.


Alun Evans graduated with a Creative Writing MA from Manchester University.