He drains the last drops of body temperature beer and spittle from the can before crushing it and tossing it through the air. Just missing it’s target it bounces off the edge of the bin coming to rest next to the other crushed empty lying in the company of socks, pizza boxes and used tissues. The second beer has not improved his thought process. He could do with a coffee but has run out. Dark circles ring his bloodshot eyes. They itch, the lids feeling gritty when he blinks. A break out of pimples blemish his nose and greasy forehead. Trembling fingers spotted with ink from a leaky Biro turn the page. Leaning forward, bent nearly double over his desk he stares at the text, reads a few lines then scribbles a note on a post-it and sticks it to the page. Somewhere else in the flat his mobile rings, mild irritation flickers across his face. He ignores the interruption and reads on.
* * * * *
A middle aged woman carries her shopping, puffing and blowing a little red in the face and irritated by the crowd that seems to insist on getting in her way. Can they not see that she is struggling with four bags bulging with groceries? The handles of the plastic bags are stretched thin, they cut into her fingers. Would it kill people to step to the side and let her pass? Her handbag slips from her shoulder forcing her to stop and place the bags on to the grey, wet concrete. Brown puddles, fag ends and chewing gum are not the ideal surface to place the food for the week but where else was there? One of the bags falls over spilling contents onto the dirty floor. An orange rolls across the pavement leaving a trail in the sludge. She curse and feels tears well up in her eyes. She swallows the lump of frustration and starts to gather her spilled goods. The Old man sees her distress and rises from the bench were he had been idling away the afternoon. It takes him a while to get up. The woman has nearly gathered everything together by the time he has shuffled over to her. Spotting an orange that has rolled further than the rest he moves towards it.
‘Your orange, it’s getting away’ she does not hear, or ignores him or does not notice that he is there. He bends slowly to scoop up the fruit with a shaking hand but at the last moment stumbles, throwing his foot forward to save himself from falling. In doing so he ‘toe pokes’ the orange into the road and under the wheel of a number seven bus. It is obliterated. A dirty orange mush is all that remains. He looks back across to the woman, smiling apologetically.
‘Sorry, I was trying to help but…’ She had not noticed him. Having once more grasped her bags, she steels herself and pushes on for home. The Old Man’s finger is still pointing at the orange, or what is left of it. He looks up at the woman’s back and sighs before shuffling back over towards the bench. His seat is taken before he reaches it. Stopping he looks at the sky and mutters.
She looks at her phone, there is no missed call, no text from him. ‘Come on, make an effort’ she thinks and looks back at her magazine. Moments later she is looking at the tree outside her window it’s bare knuckle branches rattling in the breeze. It is cold outside and getting colder every day. She looks over at her phone again. Why has he not phoned her? The phone stays stubbornly silent. Her tea grows cold, a thin skin forming on the top. She takes a sip, it is lukewarm, some of the skin sticks to her lip. Tosses the magazine aside she shifts position, pummeling a cushion and pulling her blouse straight. She notices a splash of tea that has stained the front. Cursing she stands and takes off the blouse rinsing the stain under the tap before throwing it into the washing machine. She grabs a T-shirt, yanks it over her head and down around her waist. As she walks back into the living room and snatches her phone off the table top, scrolls to his number and hits ‘call’ then stands with one arm across her chest holding the other. The phone is pressed against her ear. Her foot taps. It rings and rings and rings again. She begins to formulate a message to leave and just as she expects the answer phone message, she hears his voice.
‘Hello?’ He answers using the greeting as a question.
‘It’s me’. There is a pause while he searches, trying to recognise of her voice.
‘Oh, how are you?’
‘Fine’ He should know by now that this means that she is quite the opposite.
‘Yeah, err, I was just working, I’m snowed under here.’ He gets his excuse in before the inevitable invitation.
‘I don’t suppose you want to meet for a drink then?’
‘Sorry, I can’t. I’ve got so much to do before Monday’s meeting. Sorry.’
‘It’s fine, don’t worry about it’. Once again he misses the clue that it is clearly not ‘fine’. He glances back at his reading material and notes. The silence grows, becoming uncomfortable.
‘I am sorry, look how about we meet in the week?’. He picks up his pad and begins to read through his notes.
‘OK’. She waits for more with the phone cradled between shoulder and chin.
‘I’ll call you, OK?’
‘Bye’. Silence, she looks at the screen on her phone which tells her that ‘Call ended’.
‘Wanker!’ She selects another number and calls ‘Hi, I was just wondering if you fancied a drink or twelve?’
* * * * *
She pours a glass of wine and places it on the cold white tiles of the bathroom windowsill. Half empty bottles of perfume, stand next to nail polish remover and conditioner. There is a brush clogged with hair. She picks it up and drags out the strands balling them up and throwing them into the small metal pedal bin that seems to be always full of used baby wipes, cotton pads and tissue. As the brush drags through her hair, it makes a crunchy, ripping sound turning straggled tangles into neat, order strands. She tightens the towel around her chest and takes another sip of wine the fruity, sweetness pleasing her tongue. Her body gives a little involuntary shudder as the alcohol touches her, running down her spine. She curls her eye lashes, applies eye shadow and lipstick then irons a top and skirt, carefully pressing out the wrinkles, smoothing out the creases. She dresses and checks her self in the mirror turning first this way then that. Taking everything in and then focusing in on a detail, a flaw. She swaps earrings, adds a necklace and frees a few strands of hair from behind her ears. Keys in hand she flicks off the stereo, gulps down the remainder of her glass of wine and swings the door shut behind her.
* * * * *
There is a whir and flash of lights, wine, shots and wine then more shots. The dizzy night floats around her, warm friends brush off unwanted attention with a wink and a laugh. They fall into and around each other enclosed in a bubble of fun looking out at the world and laughing at it. Later they dance and spill drinks and laugh longer and louder. One of them gets a kiss and a number, another gets beer spilled down her dress. Single men, intoxicated with larger and possibility circle before stumbling forward with a clumsy approach lubricated with the glisten of alcohol sweat and desire. The ‘crazy’ hour approaches, last chance saloon at the meat market and the vampiric moves become harder to shake off. The house lights flash on. The flat, heavy light hurts eyes and reveals the ghouls for what they are. Hungry eyes search the room on unsteady feet. It’s time to leave. They escape leaving a trail of laughter and disappointment behind them.
She looks at his face. It is not the same face that she has been seeing, shouting at and laughing with for the last two years. Although it is composed of the same elements they are no longer in harmony. Worry is etched across the brow. Bloodshot eyes are sunk deep in dark circles behind bags. His left eye has developed a twitch. His lips are cracked and peeling, he bites at them between sentences that seem to trail off before they reach their end. He is a tired jumble, a mess that needs sorting out but where to begin. He dives into his breast pocket and pulls out a note book and pen. He flicks back and forth scanning the pages before scribbling a note in the margin and underlining a word several times.
‘What are you writing?’ He does not respond. She repeats the question.
‘What?’ He mumbles, head down still reading from the note book flattening down a curled page. She kicks him under the table. ‘Ouch’. He looks up, wounded, confused. ‘Why did you…’
‘What are you writing?’
‘Oh nothing just something I need to remember.’ he stuffs the notebook back in his pocket and gulps down the remaining half of his pint. ‘What were you saying?’ He asks but looks away before she has responded. The fruit machine has caught his attention. The sequence of lights and spinning wheels inviting him over.
‘I was saying that my boss was being so unreasonable about me asking for that week off at Easter’ she leans into the periphery of his vision. It takes him a few seconds to notice her looming, face wide eyed and expectant.
‘Would you like another drink?’ he pastes a smile across his face, it does not reach his eyes. Her nails push into her palm. She returns his question with a look that should tell him that he is trouble. With her head cocked to one side and eyebrows raised she looks up at him through her brow. ‘I’ll get you another red wine.’ He turns to the bar, empty pint glass in hand. She watches his back, tuts then takes out her phone and starts to key in a text. He gets halfway to the bar and looks back at her. Who is she ‘texting’?.
The Old man leans against the bar swilling a last mouthful of beer around the bottom of his pint glass. He stares into it, eyes glazed over. His grey hair sticks out in different directions. His face is dirty with stubble. A young man arrives at the bar looking preoccupied, like he has forgotten something really important but does not know what it is. The Old man studies the profile of the young man waiting to be served shuffling from one foot to the other jangling change in his pocket whilst looking up and down the bar.
‘They’re in no rush here, I hope you’re not’ the Old man says as he gulps down his last mouthful of beer. It is a mistake to try and talk and swallow at the same time. The beer goes down the wrong way causing the old man to cough and splutter. He covers his mouth as he hacks up phlegm. Swallowing it before bringing out a grubby handkerchief and wiping his moist eyes and noes. The young man edges away from him and leans over the bar waving a ten pound note.’ He looks to his right where a group of friends nosily half watch a football match as they jostle, back slap and laugh. The young man feels a sudden yearning to be amongst them, drunk and carefree.
I’d try around the other side if I were you’. The young man nearly turns towards the voice but stops as if the twig from a low hanging branch was blocking his way. He looks back around at the woman he is with and rubs his head before pinching the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes tight, shut.
‘Here he comes, look’ the Old man gestures at the Barman as he approaches with a languid stride devoid of any urgency. The young man orders his drinks and waits uncomfortably whilst they are poured. Money is exchanged and with a nod of thanks he is gone. The Old man raises his finger towards the Barman. ‘I’ll have same again if you don’t mind’ but his words hit the barman’s back and fall unheard onto the floor with the bottle crates and slops.
‘What took you?’ She says taking her wine and a gulp of it in one motion.
‘They’re in no rush here.’ he says as he pulls the stool under his backside. She starts talking about where they should go for their Easter break. Her lips glistening with freshly applied lip balm.
‘As long as I can get the time off of course.’ she says raising her eyebrows.
‘What do you mean?’
‘For God’s sake! I was just telling you before you got the drinks in. What’s the matter with you? You’re a million miles away!’
‘Sorry, I’m a bit distracted’ He sits back taken aback by the severity of her response.
‘Remember that place in Devon, with all the bays and cliffs and that lovely pub’
‘Devon? When did we go to Devon?’
‘You remember there was that wired bloke at the bar who kept mumbling to himself’.
‘Well the worlds full of them’.
‘You fell over in the rock pool trying to catch that crab. We watched the Madmen DVD?’ She leans towards him, palms face up nodding as she spoke.
‘Oh I remember I had to sit on a plastic bag in the pub with wet jeans’ the memory slots home and he can smell the sea breeze, taste the sand. ‘I don’t know. Do you think that we should go to the same place again?’ He picks up his pint.
‘Common we said we wanted to try that other restaurant’ She sits back
‘The one with the Michelin star and we never got to visit the lighthouse.’
The idea of a holiday sounds delightful, a different place, a break from the normal ‘to and fro’ of work home and beer at the weekends. A literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air. A holiday by the sea, salty air, ice cream and gulls calling. Fish and chips on a bench, the sound of waves crashing against the harbor wall and in the evening: whiskey and a local band by an open fire. But the Play did not feature a holiday by the sea, no frolicking in the sand. No cuddles in big soft jumpers and running towards each other along the sunset, sandy beach. The play ended before that. The play ended with the sound of crashing, scraping metal and a scream.
She examines him, frozen in thought with a pint half way to his lips, a glazed look betraying his lack of focus and attention. She resists the urge to throw her drink in his face. ‘Well?’
‘Yes, yes that sounds lovely’