What Would Your Mother Say?


Short Fiction By Alex Barr

 

Pick England and zoom in on an estuary. Follow it as it narrows. Ah, a city. Legend: BRISTOL. Zoom in further. A deep gorge, a suspension bridge, the legend CLIFTON. Now pan due east to ST WERBURGH’S. Close-packed row houses. Zoom in on one till the focus blurs.

Under that red roof, a girl called Janis sighs, ‘What planet are you on, Dad?’

‘An old one that lost its atmosphere.’

‘Well, I’m a young one spouting lava plumes.’

‘Yeah. And they burn. Especially if you dress like . . .’

‘Like? Want me to dress fireproof like Grandma?’

‘You could do worse, girl.’ Her Dad smiles. ‘Why not join a choir? Play badminton? Oh, wait, my sensors are picking up a life-form.’ Pause. ‘Called?’

‘Tom.’ Pouted like a kiss.

‘Right. I’ll pick you up from the club at midnight, so you better shoot out like one o’ them lava plumes.’

‘They don’t shoot at set times.’

‘Some geysers do. If something without a brain can, you can.’

‘And if you’ve a fare to the airport?’

‘You accompany me to the airport.’

 

In the club, it’s Janis and Tom in a music bubble. Like those plastic things that float while you thrash around inside. The space between them is full of strings which if visible would be dayglow purple, neon orange, buttercup yellow, so taut that if one body moves the other moves in unison. The joint is sweaty and crowded yet other people hardly exist. The barista must exist though, because Tom buys Janis drinks.

‘I shouldn’t let you buy.’

‘You’re a poor student. I’m working.’

‘What’s in this, Tom?’

‘Learn to trust me, Janis.’

‘Why?’

A snippet of their gritty conversations. But their dancing isn’t gritty, it’s smooth. Except – look closely at that music bubble. It’s two. Pressed close. Those coloured strings pass through from one to the other, but the interface is a mass of surface tension.

Around midnight: Nurr. Nurr. Nurr.

The phone vibrates against her thigh. She wishes Tom would slide his hand in her pocket and feel the lava heat of her skin.

‘Hi Dad.’

‘I’m out here waiting, and I’m cold.’

‘Shit.’

‘Don’t you badmouth me, girl. Just come.’

 

Now it’s Janis in her Dad’s kitchen in the cold light of a Bristol dawn. Well, Bristol ten a.m., which in February feels like dawn sneaking through the streets of St Werburgh’s. Quiet apart from the M32 motorway a few blocks away. Janis’s denim butt is on a chrome bar stool – from Ikea half a mile off, where else? Dad’s Hush Puppies pace the marbled vinyl. Where’s Janis’s mother? Don’t ask.

‘So. This boy.’

‘Man.’

‘Man! Even worse. What’s his provenance?’

‘His what?’

‘I thought you study English? His background, girl. You see rose-colored light –

I see thick fog. Where’s he from?’

‘Clifton.’

Dad puts his coffee mug down on the wood-effect worktop and squeezes shut his eyes, fingertips to temples.

‘Powers of clairvoyance tell me this guy is white.’

‘Dusty pink.’

‘Don’t cheek me. I can still smack your bottom.’

Janis thinks I know exactly what he’ll say next. Dad thinks, What the hell do I say next? Janis squidges around on her barstool. Dad bumps his bum against the worktop, the working-off-steam-top.

‘Do you trust this guy?’

Too honest to answer yes she says, ‘So Dad, prejudice oozing from the old planet?’

‘Which has a few craters from unpleasant impacts.’

‘Tom is not some stray asteroid. He’s a star.’

‘Stars burn you worse than lava.’

Janis’s brown eyes are smoldering peat.

She says coldly, ‘For someone who left school early you’re too damn clever with words.’

 

Nurr. Nurr. Nurr. Another midnight.

‘Hi Dad. See you in a tick.’

She grabs Tom’s hand. It’s not that they haven’t held hands. But this is different.

‘Come on!’

‘Where?’

‘Learn to trust me, Tom.’

It’s a weird stage in the game. Love? The word hasn’t been spoken. But hangs high like skywriting, disappearing behind clouds. Sits under their tongues like doctors’ thermometers (because love is a sickness after all).

So far they’ve hardly kissed. Why not, for heaven’s sake? Oh, that bubble interface. Invisible force-field. But surely it can’t last. Surely hormones will have their day. The star gate will open . . . unless some nasty alien dematerializes it.

If they meet in daytime they take in a foreign movie or an exhibition at the Arnolfini. Bundled in winter clothes, they stroll on the quayside hand in hand and ask about each other’s lives.

‘Mother? She works for an insurance broker.’

‘Dad? He reads detective novels and does Codewords.’

‘I work for a cooperative making bouncy castles.’

‘I want to go to uni and study law.’

Now, shivering outside after the palm-house heat of the club, they see her Dad’s taxi. Idling, even though Janis moans at him to switch off and save the planet.

‘Get in, girl, you’ll freeze in that outfit.’

‘Dad, Tom Lane.’

Tom bends to the window and holds out his hand. Milliseconds of nothing. Janis’s stomach dives like a broken lift. Is this where it goes rotting-pear-shaped? But her Dad’s right hand appears. A meaty black hand grasps a slender white one.

‘Hello, Mr Bird.’

‘Hello, Mr Lane.’

A snort of relief from Janis as she pecks Tom’s cheek and gets in the taxi.

‘Good to meet you at last,’ says Tom.

‘I like to think it’s good to meet you. I hope time will prove it so.’

 

He’s met her Dad. She hasn’t met his mother. (Where’s his Dad? Don’t ask.)

‘Tom? Is it a problem?’

What can he say? She’s busy? That would be a lie. She only works part-time at the brokers. And some Saturdays for a high-class florist.

‘Well?’ Janis insists.

‘No, of course not.’

‘Phone her.’

‘She’ll be out.’

‘At least show me where you live.’

So hand-in-hand they go, along his road in Clifton. There are trees, birds making cheerful noises, and the sun unseasonably warm on their faces. What could go wrong? The houses are substantial, cream-coloured stone with carving in all the right places. Big two-storey bay windows. Serious front doors posing behind big stone arches. There are front gardens! (Not like St Werburgh’s.) Another minute and they’ll be past.

But Tom stops.

Ahead, a woman has brought out a wheelie bin. Medium height, blonde hair in a pageboy cut, floral top, black ski pants, yellow rubber gloves. In one hand the shell from a dressed crab – pink or orange, Janis can’t decide. Either way, into the bin with it.

Tom tries to find an excuse to turn back. Too late.

‘Tom? Is that your . . . ?’

A pause. ‘Yes.’

‘Great. Introduce me.’

But Tom hangs back. A mini-shock for Janis, like when she comes downstairs half asleep and there’s one more stair than she thought. But the birds chirp and the trees shake the tambourines of their leaves to encourage her.

‘I’ll introduce myself.’

She homes in, a drone strike. When she holds out her hand Tom’s mother freezes.

‘Hi Mrs Lane, I’m Janis. Tom will have told you – ’

‘Not today, thank you.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Try next door.’

‘You’re Tom’s mother aren’t you?’

A blank look. Maybe she calls him Thomas. Or some middle name, Kaspar or Meredith. Never mind, himself is now on the scene, red in the face. His mother turns to him, beaming.

‘Tommy! Home already.’

To Janis she repeats, ‘Try next door,’ and bangs the bin lid down for emphasis. Janis fixes Tom with a look. Her arching eyebrows make that look pretty scary.

Tom says hoarsely, ‘Mum, this is Janis Bird.’

Mrs Lane’s head jerks from Tom to Janis and back like a robot processing data.

‘Hello,’ says Janis, and climbing a waterfall of doubt, holds out her hand again.

Mrs Lane says, ‘My hand is dirty, I’m afraid.’

But it isn’t her yellow glove she’s staring at, it’s Janis’s own hand.

‘I mentioned her, Mum. We met at the club.’

‘Oh, the club.’

She makes it sound like a weapon.

She asks Janis, ‘Do you clean there?’

The split-second silence feels like an eon.

‘Mum! Janis goes to dance, like me. She’s at college.’

Mrs Lane scans Janis’s face for signs of education. ‘Which?’

Janis mumbles a name. Conversation dies. Distant strimmers are heard in the land.

‘See you later,’ says Tom, and in a drought of nice-to-meet-yous, he and Janis move on.

 

Tom knew what was coming. That’s why he didn’t come home till after the one o’clock news.

‘So that’s who you’ve been seeing.’

‘Yes.’

‘After all I’ve done for you, Tommy.’

She’s turned off the TV and is still holding the remote as if she could switch channels in Tom’s brain. But all she’s done is mute him.

‘What’s wrong with your own kind?’

‘She is my own kind. We’re soul mates.’

‘Ha!’

You have to hand it to her. She can pack more bitterness into one syllable than a gallon of quinine sulphate. She follows up with a monologue. Tom’s heard it all before, but then it referred to ‘out there’ somewhere, and now it’s aimed at him like a taser. Apparently there’s no such person as Janis, just a chip off Them. As for the technical terms for Them, you hear them on football terraces, even on the pitch. If Mrs L was a referee she’d be banned.

Ten minutes and Tom snaps.

‘I’ve heard enough.’

His Mum doesn’t think he has.

 

Janis and Tom are walking down Cotham Brow. It’s downhill all the way.

‘You should have warned me.’

‘I didn’t know she’d be like that. I’ve never . . . you know . . .’

‘Had a girlfriend who was black? You didn’t want me to meet her, did you?’

Tom sighs. His trainers make sucking sounds on the wet fallen leaves. The clack of Janis’s heels is muffled. The road funnels a chilly breeze. A poster in the newsagents reminds them it’s Valentine’s Day. Not for them, huh? Neither of them mentions it. In fact, they’re silent until the café on Gloucester Road. Tom stirs his hot chocolate carefully.

‘Tom, what did you think would happen?’

A frown turns his smooth face to dishcloth creases.

‘She comes out with undigested crap from her parents. I thought she’d see you as you, not . . .’

‘Not one of them.’

He reaches for her hands, but they aren’t forthcoming. Her face is a mask.

‘Janis, I want to be with you. More than anything.’

‘Well if you think I’m going to put up with . . .’

‘With what?’ His voice is edgy.

‘With losing you, bloody well think again.’

Her hands come up to meet his, and his chocolate spills.

 

What’s this? Mrs Lane at the college? Surely she studied years ago? Didn’t get very good grades though. Maybe wants to re-sit.

But she isn’t knocking on doors, just sitting by a potted palm in a chrome chair in reception. Classes have finished, a powerful current of students is flowing past. Watchful Mrs Lane is an angler. She spies the fish she fancies and rises to reel it in.

‘Miss Bird?’

For a moment Janis fails to recognize this woman in the lilac beret and matching scarf, belted camel-hair coat, black flares, and boots. Her gloves are black, not yellow.

‘We need to talk.’

The voice is the same one that said, ‘Do you clean there?’ A question she must regret, because why’s she here if not to apologise?

‘The student canteen?’

‘No.’ Mrs Lane shudders. A ten-minute ride in her Opel brings them to a cavernous pub. It’s happy hour. No-one else is seeking happiness, so they can talk freely. Tom’s mother studies the hessian wall coverings for inspiration.

Then, ‘I’m aware of the situation.’

‘The situation?’

Janis folds beer mats. Mrs Lane removes them to the next table.

‘I realize Tommy has a crush again.’

‘A crush? That’s what thirteen-year-olds have.’

‘And that, my dear, is his mental age. Crush, infatuation, whatever, it won’t last.’

‘Ha!’

‘Believe it or not, I’m trying to stop you getting hurt.’

The beer mats gone Janis tugs her hair instead.

Mrs Lane fixes her with a look. ‘Tommy is like his father. My ex-husband was half Scottish half Danish. He drank.’

‘Are you saying Tom used to drink?’

Mrs Lane adjusts her scarf to let a laugh out.

‘But . . . at the club he hardly . . .’

Mrs Lane’s eyelids flutter. ‘You haven’t known him long. He’s good at concealment. But there’s a limit. One day, bang!’ She hits the table.

Janis jumps. Mrs Lane checks her watch.

‘I ought to get back. Tommy will be home from what he calls work, and I need to keep an eye on him.’

She drains her glass.

‘Wait, Mrs Lane. This is hard to believe.’

‘His previous girlfriends didn’t believe me either. Oh well . . .’

‘Wait.’ Janis is fired up now. ‘These girlfriends. Did they ditch him because . . . Or did he ditch them?’

Maybe one day she’ll grill politicians on TV. Or sneaky witnesses in court.

‘Good question.’ (Isn’t that what politicians say? Has she failed already?) ‘I know he’s my son, but I have to be honest. He doesn’t stick at anything. Jobs, education, girls . . . and they were nice girls from good areas.’

‘Not St Werburgh’s.’

‘I don’t know St Werburgh’s. Sorry to bring bad news, but you’ll thank me one day.’

And clutching her bag too tight to leave a hand free to shake, she leaves Janis gasping like a landed fish.

 

‘Do you believe her?’

Janis and Tom are walking on Coronation Road by the river. The yellow banana bridge strains for attention, but they’re too absorbed in dodging the passers-by.

‘I don’t want to believe her,’ Janis moans. ‘But I don’t really know you, do I?’

‘You know everything about me that matters.’

‘Is that what you said to the others?’

She’s pleased with that. It’ll force him to make some bland political comment.

‘The other girls you told me Mother said I got bored with? Like I get bored with everything?’

Hm. She didn’t think he’d acknowledge the issue.

‘Yes,’ she says lamely. Some lawyer.

He stops dead and looks at her. It’s the sad hour of dusk. Sky above the buildings indigo, streetlights reflected in the damp pavement, people in houses drawing curtains. Hard to believe spring is due next month.

‘Yesterday, in the café, you said you weren’t going to put up with losing me.’

‘I don’t know anything anymore,’ she wails. ‘Not even how you feel about me.’

‘Do I have to spell it out?’

‘Unless you’re emotionally dyslexic.’

He takes her cold hand. His finger traces the eight letters of the three timeworn words.

He says, ‘If you want to be with me, Janis, grit your teeth and hang on to what you first thought of me.’

Janis is proud of her antennae. They pick up signals other people miss. If she was wrong about Tom she could be wrong about everything. She’d have to cut off her antennae – aargh! – and grow new ones.

Goodbye kisses are never as good as hello ones, but this one sets a disappointment record.

 

Can she hang on? Like a movie heroine gripping a ledge on a skyscraper?

Now when they meet there’s none of that heart-fluttering tension. They’re dummies dumped on a park bench. Fizzy Janis is flat. Limpid Tom is murky.

So what keeps them going? Ah, the club. Only dancing makes Tom settle and Janis effervesce. The way she moves makes him sick with desire. He can only deal with it by being even more frenetic. And Janis? The way he looks at her makes her melt, so she has to shut her eyes till the music makes her solid. Then she opens them in panic. Is he still there? He is.

But it’s stalemate, checkmate, never-going-to-mate mate. How long can they survive on conversations like:

‘I failed my last assessment.’

‘Oh hell.’

Sigh. ‘Dad just pulls a face.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

Silence.

‘I did a crap seam on a blow-up.’

‘What happened?’

‘No-one moans at the collective. They just look shitty. Wish they’d bawl me out.’

Now they’re adrift in space, surrounded by dark matter. Star gate? What star gate?

 

Janis is losing her grip on that ledge. Who’s going to break her fall? Her Dad?

‘Something wrong with you, girl?’

‘No.’

‘Whoa. Bullshitting your father. That is wrong.’

‘Tom, if you must know.’

‘He must be a Black Hole.’

‘Why?’

‘You pack a whole galaxy of trouble into his name.’

‘Your cue, “I told you so.”’

‘Don’t need to say it. You did.’

What happens next is hard to explain. Does she think, ‘In the destructive element immerse’? Does it ‘just happen’ that one Saturday she finds herself outside the florists? And goes into the florists?

The scent of freesia, lilies, and alstroemeria is a drug. The halogen lights are hypnotic. The ends of her springs of hair are electric. The woman who greets her is an ad for skin cream, Moroccan oil, and nail bars.

‘May I help you?’

Janis is dumb. All she can do is point into the void beyond, where Mrs Lane behind a counter is writing in a notebook. Listing Tom’s faults? She closes the book and glides towards Janis smoothly, like a Dalek.

‘I need to talk.’

Tom’s mother processes this.

‘I’ll be finished in twenty minutes. There’s a café two doors away.’

Cafés. How would the wheels of life turn without them? This one’s about to close. A smell of dishwasher tablets. They face one another like chess players.

‘You’re still seeing my son.’

‘Yes.’

‘But you aren’t happy. I tried to spare you. You must have a thick skin.’

She studies Janis’s dark forearms, resting on the table. Shredding beer mats? No, this time the menu is origami.

‘I need to know . . .’ Janis opens, in a voice borrowed from a frog.

‘To know?’

‘Whether what you said is true.’

‘No doubt my son denies it.’

‘He says I know everything about him.’

Mrs Lane throws back her head and laughs. Her double chin tautens, a hint of the girl she once was. In a rich voice, she says, ‘You don’t know the half.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Remember I’m trying to protect you. If it’s not too late.’

Her eyes roam the café. It has an Italian theme – prints of Siena and Florence, the tape loop playing Rossini’s Thieving Magpie overture. Then her eyes fix on Janis.

‘This must go no further.’

‘It won’t.’

A pregnant pause. Then an ugly birth.

‘He steals from my purse.’

‘When he was little?’

‘Last week. And the week before. And the week before that.’

‘Why? He’s got a job.’

‘When he bothers to turn up. But it’s not enough.’

‘Not enough?’

‘To fund his habit.’

‘Drinking?’

‘And other delights.’

‘Drugs?’

‘Ssh! This is in confidence. Of course, it’s a world I know nothing about.’

She gives Janis a significant look as if to say, but I’m sure you do.

The menu’s in tatters now. A we-buy-gold flyer next. The significant look persists. Janis has a horrid thought – does this woman think she, Janis, is supplying Tom?

‘You say he steals,’ she whispers. ‘Don’t you confront him?’

Mrs Lane laughs bitterly. ‘I did, once.’

‘And?’

In an undertone, ‘The result was two broken ribs.’

‘No.’

‘Oh yes. And last month, when he heard that I’d seen you, multiple bruises.’

She wipes away tears with a paper napkin.

‘But have him if you want him. Someone must, I suppose. Even though he’ll chew them and spit them out, as he did with your predecessors. And they were . . .’

‘White?’

‘From good areas.’

‘I feel sick.’

Mrs Lane nods, with a little smile and a frown.

‘Thank you for the coffee, Mrs Lane.’

‘My pleasure.’

Janis stumbles out, putting to flight three pigeons.

 

She’s like a computer when the nasty little coloured disc keeps spinning. She’s in a cleft stick (whatever that is). She’s on the horns of a dilemma, and she can’t dial Emma for an answer. She’s an equation with two solutions, one real, one not, and who knows which is which?

On one hand, this woman speaks with feeling and total confidence. Janis not liking her doesn’t mean she talks rubbish. On the other hand, Tom thinks none of it worth denying. But as every schoolgirl knows, loving someone doesn’t mean they don’t lie.

Two parallel universes, one matter, one anti-matter. Try to combine them, bang! And speaking of parallel universes, there’s a pair in Clifton and St Werburgh’s. Called dine-in kitchens.

In one sits Tom eating breakfast. So slowly you’d think the muesli was gravel dredged from the Avon. His mother stands looking at her reflection in the window, merged with the skeletal trees outside.

‘You keep checking your phone, dear. Expecting a message?’

It doesn’t take a genius to guess the subtext. That his girlfriend hasn’t texted him for a week. That she hasn’t been to the club.

‘Tell me, Tommy, do you ever see that nice Claire from Clevedon?’

‘She went to Australia.’

‘Oh. No, it’s that lovely Cynthia from Redland I’m thinking of.’

‘She got tired of me not having a car.’

‘Well if you had a better job . . .’

‘Is there any coffee?’

In St Werburgh’s universe, the same question.

‘Coffee? Yes, girl, if you make it,’ comes the answer.

‘Urrgh.’

‘Oh sorry, that would mean you get off your backside and stop moping like a sick cat. Why aren’t you in college, anyway?’

‘Tired.’

‘Weird. You go clubbing till all hours and yet you’re bright and bushy. You stop clubbing, sleep early, and you’re tired. Explanation?’

Now the tears come. Mr Bird knows his daughter well enough to hold back and wait for details.

‘He’s not who I thought he was.’

‘He’s who I thought he was.’

‘How can you be so wrong about someone?’ She sighs like a bellows. ‘But am I wrong? I don’t know where to go with this.’

‘If I drive from A to B, I sit calmly and work out a route.’

‘Rubbish, you set the satnav. I’ve no satnav and no map for this.’

‘Navigate by the stars.’

‘Stars don’t give a fuck.’

‘And if you don’t mind your language you’ll be seeing stars.’

 

Now it’s three whole weeks since they texted, spoke, touched . . . Thoughts fly but cross without meeting. How long can this go on? It’s already March. Nearly spring. ‘Sweet lovers love the spring.’ Oh yeah?

Janis thought she knew Tom right away. Like a potter peering through a spy hole into her kiln, she thought she saw his soul glowing upright. Could she have been too dazzled to see it was crooked?

She thinks, If I was wrong let’s find out. Picks up her phone, gingerly – it might be red hot. Texts, Where r u? Doesn’t expect an answer, so when it comes half an hour later spills her fruit juice.

Clifton Bridge.

Oh my God. Call the cavalry.

‘Dad!’

He’s reading the paper. Not one Janis approves of, but he does like to read in peace.

‘You have to drive me to Clifton Bridge. Now!’

‘I don’t have to do anything, sweetheart.’

‘Please. Please! I’ll wash up for days on end.’

‘Weeks.’

‘Weeks. Come on!’

But of course, Tom isn’t there. Two hundred feet below, traffic grinds and snakes along Portway. The steep sides of the Gorge meet the river in slippery mud banks. Janis and her Dad peer down, dizzy.

‘He can’t have jumped,’ says Dad. ‘They put these barriers.’

‘They just cut the suicides by half.’

‘So erring on the side of optimism, what’s the plan?’

‘What’s ahead?’

‘Bower Ashton.’

They could turn back to Clifton. Even call at Tom’s house. Great idea. If one black face freaks his Mum out, what will two do?

Back in the taxi, the radio squawks. She hates that staccato voice, like Martians telling Earth to surrender.

‘Airport pickup, to Bath,’ her Dad tells her and drives on. Okay, maybe Tom’s gone this way. She remembers him talking about Bower Ashton. She texts again, Where r u now? Her Dad whistles cheerfully, ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.’ Minutes pass, no reply. Is he still alive?

‘Dad? Is there some way to pinpoint a mobile?’

‘If you’re MI5 or the police.’

‘I’ll call the police.’

‘You crazy? Do I want more of their attention?’

‘Then let me out.’

He stops.

‘Before I leave you to your fate, may I say I hate to see my child humiliate herself for a guy who doesn’t know arse from elbow. And that I’m not sorry that he’s gone, because I had a great fear you might end up marrying him.’

‘He said he loves me.’

A passing Tesco juggernaut shakes the car.

‘Easy to say.’

‘Have you ever said it and not meant it?’

Her Dad shuts his eyes and thinks.

‘No, in fact.’

‘Well then.’

It takes her forever to get home.

Meanwhile, Tom’s brain is overheating. Should he reply to Where r u now? It took an effort to reply to Where r u? What does she expect after weeks of silence? Why should he keep replying when she didn’t? On the other hand . . . those eyes . . . those lips . . . the way she says things no-one else would think of. The way she laughs if he wears odd socks. And what’s his hand doing? It’s got a life of its own, like something in a horror movie. Yep, it’s crawling towards his phone. It’s twitching the keypad. Oh well, sometimes things have to happen, even the wrong things, because otherwise time gets jammed.

Where are u now?

Bzzz. Instantly. Wow.

Home.

Okay, he thinks, let’s get this over and done.

Let’s meet.

Silence. So, wrong move. So be it. If only –

Bzzz. Mina Rd Park at 6?

Neutral ground. Not a bad idea, considering.

C u there. No x. They’re in short supply.

 

What do you know, it’s happy hour again. It’s raining so they’re in the nearest pub. The pinball machine repeats its bland sequence of notes. Janis insists on buying. Lucky she’s eighteen. A pint of bitter for him, a double g & t for her.

‘So. What have you been doing?’

‘Working. Seeing mates.’

‘Been to the club? You know . . . since . . . ?’

‘Once. You weren’t there.’

‘No.’

Oh hell, beer-mat folding for two now.

‘Janis, I don’t understand. Nothing for weeks, then suddenly . . .’

‘Drink up.’

‘Cheers.’

‘Finish it.’

‘If you insist.’

He drains his glass.

‘Another?’

‘No thanks, Janis.’

‘Go on, you know you want to. I’m buying.’

‘If you’re having one. Just a half.’

She buys him a pint. And a g & t for herself.

‘How’s your mother, Tom?’

‘Seems pleased with herself.’

Janis shivers.

‘And your dad, Janis?’

‘Boring. Drink up.’

He sips. What can they talk about? Ah, that woman on a barstool. What’s her story? Waiting for someone? Been stood up? Hoping to get picked up? Or drowning her sorrows? Maybe her dog died. Or her husband. Maybe her roof leaks. Her leg hurts. Now the conversation is flowing which is all wrong because surely it shouldn’t, but anyway it’s doomed because the woman checks her watch, zips her bag, and leaves. That’s their crutch gone.

‘Drink up and I’ll get you another.’

‘I only asked for a half.’

‘Go on. Admit you want another.’

‘No. No! Really.’

‘Oh sod it, I may as well go.’

Outside it’s pouring. Tom’s sweatshirt is soon dark with damp, Janis’s hair more mop than halo. They hurry to the park but there’s no shelter. Tom’s face is full of sadness. Janis takes pity on him.

‘You better come back and dry off.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘No, but come anyway.’

In the front room she lights the gas-fire. Tom steams gently while Janis runs upstairs and changes into dry jeans and T-shirt with sudden panic. He’s here! In the house! The equation still unsolved! Whose fault? His! His!

She runs back down, and when he stands up to greet her, slaps his face. Not just once, twice, three times. His eyes cloud over.

‘What’s that for?’

‘Being a bastard.’

She rushes to draw the curtains. Fired by the gin and tonic she punches him in the stomach. No result. She hammers on his collarbones with her fists. You have to say this for her: she knows where it hurts.

‘Ow! Janis!’

‘Come on, call me a bitch. No-one can see us, come on, hit back!’

‘Why?’

She punches and slaps, hammers and kicks. Her eyes are brown bombs, her teeth are daggers.

‘Come on, Tommy! Hit back! Break a rib!’

Does he turn pale? Does he mutter, ‘Oh my God, she knows’? Does he yell, ‘Give me some light’? None of the above. Her attacks get weaker.

‘Break a rib,’ she grunts.

‘I thought you could hold on,’ Tom groans.

‘I can, I can!’ she sobs, and collapses against him.

He holds her and gently strokes her back. She looks into his face.

‘You’re still soaking. Get those wet clothes off.’

She helps him off with them. He’s Apollo, or Endymion, one of that crew. Her own clothes come off more easily. The carpet they kneel on has a pattern of daisies. It’s the old story. But the thing about the old story, it’s always new.

‘What would your mother say?’ Janis whispers.

‘She’d wish I’d never seen you. She’d have poked my eyes out and put in wooden ones.’

Which would be a pity, because his eyes are very bright.

 


Alex Barr’s story collection My Life With Eva was published in 2017 by Parthian Books. Take a Look At Me-e-e! a book of stories for children about farm animals, based on his experience as a smallholder, was published by Gomer Press in 2014. His stories and poems have been read on BBC Radio and have appeared in leading magazines. His poetry collections are Letting in the Carnival from Peterloo and Henry’s Bridge’ from Starborn. He is a previous contributor to MIROnline.