JAMES NICHOLLS - INVITATIONS
It’s about midday on a Saturday, and Jared has only just woken up. He’s sitting in the kitchen, on a stool next to an island. His eyes are transfixed to its marble surface, but his gaze is absent: the new day has yet to dawn for him today. He’s munching on his go-to breakfast: chocolate spread on toast. A streak of spread has caught on the end of his chin, flailing with each movement of his jaw. He’s aware of it, of course, but the world is quiet, and so is he - there’s no need to concern himself.
- Could you please, for once in your life, wipe your chops after eating?
Oscar is leaning on the threshold between the kitchen and the hallway. He’s peeking around the corner, chest bare, a towel tied loosely around his waist.
Jared barely hears the question. His shoulders move with the idea of a shrug, and he takes another large bite from his toast, sputtering crumbs all over the counter. Without looking up towards Oscar, he replies.
- You may want to avoid the splash zone –
He gestures in a circular motion, deciding, for some reason, that he should use the hand with the toast in its grasp; the gesture springs the toast from his fingers, leaving it spread-side down on the counter.
- Well, I guess I can wait for breakfast… Maybe when I’m dressed you’ll have stopped ruining toast for me.
Jared tilts his head upwards and gives a beaming, toast-encrusted smile. Oscar rolls his eyes as he turns away, plodding his way back to their bedroom.
Jared tilts his head upwards and gives a beaming, toast-encrusted smile. Oscar rolls his eyes as he turns away, plodding his way back to their bedroom.
From the street, the sporadic sounds of construction work invade the peace: the scrape of a shovel across stone, the clanging tick of a chisel, and the radio droning on, the latest hits struggling for air below it all. They’ve been working for weeks, and Jared has become accustomed to the sounds they make - it was almost a part of his routine, to stand here and watch them stirring. He watches them. Their faces are masks of focus, their movements slow and methodical; not a single striking motion is out of place. There’s nothing on their minds in these moments, or so it seems to Jared. All he sees in their faces is a mild concern over the accuracy in each strike of the chisel, or the consistency of the cement tumbling around the mixer. Cement mixing fascinates him; it’s not an exact science – or at least, it doesn’t look like it – but he notices how they puzzle over whether more cement, sand, or water is needed in the mix; they’re searching for that all-perfect ratio; if they do, it will make all the work they’re doing stick.
Jared walks over to the cupboard, drawing it open. He picks out a large pint glass, scooping it up in his palms. He fills it up with water from the sink and glugs half of it, feeling the moisture wash away the sleep in his eyes.
He hears footsteps approaching from the hallway. Oscar emerges a moment later, a grimace wringing his eyes.
Oscar’s holding his phone in his hands. He catches Jared’s eyes, before looking again at the phone; it's precariously balanced in his palm, with no fingers to secure it, as though he was seriously thinking about dropping it. He raises his eyebrows and then strides purposefully into the kitchen.
- You’re not going to be thrilled by this…
Oscar stops suddenly and backtracks a little. He looks to his left and spots a stool, grabs it and drags it towards him. He sits down, shoulders slumped.
Jared looks at Oscar as he goes about these motions, eyes wide. A smirk curls at the corner of his mouth.
- It’s probably not as bad as you think
- Really? You think so?
- I mean, yeahhhh?
- We’ve been invited to a ‘family’ brunch. Tomorrow. At my parent’s house…
- That’s pretty dire actually, and no, I guess I’m not ‘thrilled’... Who’s going?
- Well, my parents… not sure who else -
Jared’s mobile rings. He takes it out of his pocket, looking at the caller ID, and a frown washes over his face. Oscar knows that look. It’s his dad calling.
Jared holds the phone about an inch away from his ear, wincing as he answers.
- Oh, hey Dad.
- Um – yeah. We’re good? I guess? What’s up?
- Oh, sure, that sounds gre -
The ‘A’ gets caught in his throat.
- Um, but I think we’re busy tomorrow… I’ll need to check.
- Check now? No, I can’t right now I – I’m driving?
- I don’t have a car? Right – I mean I’m in Oscar’s car –
- Yeah, he… bought it – yesterday – and I’m driving it…
Oscar lifts both palms to his head. A low chuckle racks his body.
- We’ll check our diary later – we should be home in an hour or so.
- It’s 9am? We… We slept at a friend's place last night, and didn't want to overstay our welcome, so we came back early. Besides, the bungalow is a mess -
- ‘Course, yeah – can confirm you’ll definitely know before the end of today. I’ll call you back.
- Ok, cheers Dad – speak soon.
Jared hangs up. Oscar eyes him closely as he gets up, wipes a hand over his face, and puts his phone down on the kitchen counter, half-heartedly sliding it away from him.
- When did you say brunch was?
- What is it?
- It’s just… My dad may have invited us to a ‘family’ barbeque.
- So that’s two ‘family’ gatherings we have to choose from. Lucky us. Where’s the barbeque at?
- My sister’s place, she’s arranged the whole thing - they’re gonna pick him up from the care home, take him for the day.
They stand still for a second, unsure of how to proceed.
- We should sit.
They wind their way to the living room. Jared swings the door open and ushers Oscar inside. Their faces are creased, tied in knots of uncertainty. They collapse onto the sofa together. Oscar is immediately still, considering his options, but Jared takes longer to settle; he shuffles around, trying to find a comfy nest in the cushions. Oscar waits for him to stop before speaking.
- So, which would you rather?
- Well, obviously. But, they’re family, right? It’s not like there’s been any conflicts recently.
- You know why that is, don’t you?
- Enlighten me.
- Because we haven’t seen their ugly mugs recently.
- I think there might be a little bit more to it than that.
- Nope. We haven’t seen them, so no conflict. Simple.
Oscar narrows his eyes. Jared laughs lightly.
- I’m not wrong, am I?
- I suppose you’re not entirely wrong.
Oscar combs a hand through his hair. He halts at his scalp, then gets up abruptly to leave the room.
Jared reaches for the tv remote on the coffee table. He stops the flight of his hand, reconsiders, and leans back into the sofa instead. He knew that the last thing Oscar needed was to see his parents, especially now. He had just intercalated from his masters in History and hadn’t told them yet; it didn’t seem as though he planned to either. Jared was unsure whether Oscar could deal with that conversation, on top of their usual spiel.
Oscar crashes onto the couch, a layer of dust puffing into the air. He slaps an A4 pad of lined paper onto the table and clicks his pen into action.
Jared looks quizzically at Oscar, but his attention is elsewhere. He bites his lower lip, taps his teeth with his pen, and wonders what the first words should be to grace the lines of the page. Before Jared can ask what he’s doing, the pen accelerates downwards and begins flourishing across the page.
Shrugging, Jared picks up the tv remote and flicks it at the screen. A boring, middle-aged couple zap into view. They’re in a kitchen, standing at the window. According to the husband, there’s something vaguely wrong with the garden that makes this property ‘imperfect’. He’s not making much sense. The estate agent narrows her eyes at him, her mouth slightly agape as she tries to figure out if there’s any point dissecting his words. She exhales and decides not to bother.
- “Yes, well, let’s move on to the bedrooms then, perhaps that will change your mind”.
Jared, the remote still in his hand, presses mute. He’s not in the mood for watching anything, paying attention to it; but he finds the silent movements of people he doesn’t care about oddly comforting. He zones out for a few minutes, looking at the screen, not really tracking the flow of what’s going on; it’s white noise for his eyes.
When he blinks he knows a lot of time has passed, though he doesn’t remember where it’s gone. The TV is still on, but it's a different programme, some kind of serial drama, judging by the bleak filter that seems to pervade everything in view. He looks around the room, getting the sense that something has changed. Oscar. He’s moved from the sofa beside him to the armchair on the other side of the room. He’s scraping the back of his pen across the enamel of his teeth.
- Stop scraping your teeth.
- Huh? What?
He pulls the pen away from his teeth and looks at it for a second, confused.
- Oh! Right.
Oscar starts tapping the pen against his nose instead.
- What are you trying to do?
He speaks through his teeth, the pen still tapping away.
- Write a story.
He puts the pen down.
- I’m writing a story - about when you met my parents.
- Oh… Why?
- There’s just something about it. Something I can’t place. It sprung to mind when we were presented with this dilemma.
- Something you can’t place? Verrry mysterious.
- Shut up, it’s important.
He stops tapping, then looks at Jared, a strange intensity in his eyes.
- You should help me.
- I mean, I could, I’m just not sure that I should. You’re giving me these crazy eyes.
- Sure, but this could help us make a decision about tomorrow. I know we don’t want to see my parents, but there has to be a good reason, apart from the usual that I can deal with. We don’t really spend much time with them, in fact, I’m pretty sure you haven’t seen them since that first meeting.
- Nope, have not seen them since.
- Do you remember why?
Jared looks at a corner of the ceiling. There are cobwebs there, a broken strand flapping like the tail of a long flying lizard. He blows out his cheeks.
- Like I said earlier. Their ugly mugs.
- C’mon. Seriously...
- In that case. No. Nothing is springing to mind.
- So, let’s get on with this story of yours. If you think it’ll help…
- Cool, I’ll narrate, or at least to start us off - I’ve already written the beginning. Just jump in when you remember something.
Ⅱ. Oscar begins the story.
- It wasn’t that long ago – year, year and a half maybe? – end of our second year at uni. We hadn’t been seeing each other long. Well, a few months or so. But you would stay over quite a lot, and my parents knew that you “existed”. They visited on occasion, and when they did, they would sport these odd, wrinkled noses, as though they could smell something in the air; that you’d been there maybe, or that some weird gay shit had been going on.
- I mean, we are pretty freaky.
- I’m not sure that’s my point.
- No, but it’s true.
- I’ll give you that.
My parents wanted to see me. You know, they wanted to make sure I’m on the right path, driving ever onwards into the bowels of academia, that sort of thing -
- As per -
- Right. Only this time, instead of just sitting down for the usual cup of tea, they wanted to take me out. Anywhere I wanted – they said I could bring a “friend”. Think it was my dad who’d suggested it, and that word – friend – he nearly choked on it. Couldn’t get his lips through that first ‘F’.
“So – uh – son, do you have any fff-fffrrriends? That you’d uh – like to bring along?“
And naturally, I called you -
Jared’s mobile starts ringing, startling them both. He slides it out of his pocket and stares at the caller ID.
- Your dad again?
Oscar’s question goes unheard. Jared’s brow twitches.
- Why would she be calling me?
Jared snaps his head from the phone to look at Oscar. He has a look on his face: eyelids slits, blinking sporadically; lips slightly parted, his teeth clenched shut. He doesn’t say anything, but Oscar recoils from the myriad implications bursting into the air. Once Jared’s face has relaxed, he speaks, the words viscous, forcing themselves out of his mouth – pooling into the space between them.
- It’s my mum… She never calls...
- Are you going to answer?
Oscar slides his pen into his pocket.
- I don’t know, should I?
- Do you want to?
Jared looks down at his phone again, his gaze transfixed to the green symbol that would summon her voice.
- Not really.
He drops the phone back onto the table, as though to clear his hands of the problem. But it keeps ringing, for ten, twenty, thirty seconds, stretching out to a minute. It keeps going, and they both try to ignore it, focusing their eyes on anything else they can find in the room, but it keeps ringing, tugging at their ears, yanking them closer, incessantly begging for their attention -
- Please stop…
The phone stops ringing. A silence throbs in the air.
- You alright?
Jared doesn’t hesitate.
- Yeah, I’m fine. Weren’t we doing something?
- Well, we were narrating that story - ‘The-Story-Of-How-You-Met-My-Parents’. Although we’d arrived at the end of what I’d written.
- Let’s just wing it then, say what comes to us -
- Okay, but I’ll want to write it down.
- Okay, but no stopping the flow to write it all down. If you can’t catch stuff, fuck it.
A grimace plasters Oscar’s face, looking as though he’d just eaten Jared’s words and the twang of them was burning his tongue.
- Ok, sure, I can roll with that. Do you want to start us off?
- Nah, it’s your story, you’re the narrator. I can’t remember where we were anyway.
- Ok, well I’d just called you, invited you to lunch with my parents. You said yes...
Ⅲ. - I’m not sure why I chose the place. The name of it just pinged in my mind, a beacon from a conversation I can’t remember. Not that the name was particularly memorable. It was ‘Somebody’s Café’: small, simple, kind of off-kilter -
I don’t know if you remember it. It was that place deep in the woods near campus, sat atop a clearing on a hill. We’d been there a couple of times. It always seemed to be empty. And the owner? Do you remember? He only had one ear, but he never asked us to repeat our orders, and he always got it perfect. Don’t think he spoke a word to us at all, actually.
- Oh, I remember him, like we’d be having a conversation and then we’d notice him, and you could never know how long he’d been standing there. Wonder if he ever got sick of waiting for us to make our orders.
- Probably, we can get pretty deep sometimes.
- Yeah we can.
- Nothing. Keep going.
- So, you remember the place?
- I remember the place. I lived close by, which is why I said I’d meet you near the trail leading up. I arrived a little earlier, I think I sat waiting on the stump of an old tree that had sprouted its way through the pavement.
- I didn’t spot you at first when we arrived in the car. Your clothes weren’t particularly camouflaging, but I remember imagining that you’d sort of emerged from the hedgerow, or like, from the earth itself?
- From the earth itself? C’mon now.
- No, seriously. It was like you had this immaterial form, and as we drew nearer, you were slowly being breathed back into the world. I don’t know, it happens sometimes… I’ll see something, and I can clearly see that it’s something, but my mind doesn’t quite register it. And then out of nowhere my brain sort of throws an image at me and goes: ‘this?’. And there it is, that something takes form instantly and everything makes sense again.
- I mean, okay, but it would have been weird if you hadn’t recognised me…
- Well, I’m sorry for trying to mystify the scene a little bit.
- Sure… As for me, I just remember seeing a beat-up car that looked like it had no business being on a road. When I saw you sitting in the back seat my first thought was: ‘Wow, this guy clearly doesn’t give a fuck if he’s willing to be seen in that thing.’ Definitely worked in your favour.
- You can thank my parents for that, they’ve never cared much for looking after the material possessions in their lives. Cars and children especially.
- Ouch. We’re firing shots already.
- Afraid so...
Where were we? Right, so we arrived in the car, got out, and I greeted you way more cordially than I would have liked. I believe I shook your hand?
- Yeah, I hated that.
And your parents, you’ve got to give it to them, they gave me different varieties of awkward to deal with. Your mum over-compensated, giving me a big hug and saying:
“It’s SO nice to MEET you, we were DELIGHTED to hear that Oscar had made a new FRIEND.” Sounded like she was in some sort of denial about *the true nature of our relationship*
And your dad, I don’t even know what he was trying to do. He must have felt obliged to hug me because your mum had, but then it’s clearly a bit gay for a guy to hug another guy he’s just met, but then also, he knows I’m gay, so perhaps he thought it might be okay.
Wow, I almost feel sorry for him trying to navigate all that.
In the end, he sort of curled his arm towards me - as though he was intending to hug me - then he drew it back, letting it hang there for a moment before proceeding to pat my shoulder like I was some new animal he was afraid of touching. When he realised I wasn’t going to bite his hand off, he rocked my shoulder gently, which I think made the whole interaction worse. There was something niggling in my shoulder for the rest of the day…
And there it is now, that same niggling feeling. Thank you, body, for reminding me.
Yeah, I’m sorry, your dad just makes me feel weird...
- I didn’t know you felt that way…
- Neither did I till we started talking about it.
You know, I think I may have remembered that ‘something’ you wanted to remember. You’ve completely erased it from the story.
- Really? What is it?
- Not what, who. Your ‘Aunt’. Your mum’s friend, the one she insists has a ‘heart of gold’, but very clearly doesn’t.
- Oh. Shit. Yeah, Aunt Maddy, she was there. She was excessively there.
- Yeah, she was ‘excessively’ there.
- How could we leave her out? Seems like a pretty glaring oversight.
- I mean, I think I know why. It’s pretty clear that we just don’t want her there. Maybe we could carry on without her? We can do that, right? Cut her out of the story?
- We definitely could, but I think it falls apart without her. You remember what she said to us, don’t you?
- I’d prefer not to because then it's all I’m going to be thinking about if I see her at brunch tomorrow.
- For the sake of the story, though, perhaps I should write it down?
- I guess her words are like the shocking and perverse twist in this tale...
We walk up together; the guy with the missing ear takes our order; we both step outside for a fag; she follows us - saunters over to us - takes the fag from my mouth… And then she says… What did she say?
- Well, I think it started with: ‘Hello boys…’
- Oh no. NO. no no no no no. Fuck that, I am not revisiting that. We are not immortalising those words anywhere. Not on your lips, not on the page, and definitely not in blinking lights on the store-front of my mind.
- Blinking lights on the what now?
- It means I don’t want to think about it.
- Does it?
- I’m sorry. This was a stupid idea.
- It’s alright. Look, if it wasn’t us in the story, maybe it would have worked. But it is, so…
- Alright, well that settles it, we’re not going to brunch tomorrow.
- I’m sorry, I just don’t think I could stomach it, not if there’s even the slightest chance she’s going to appear and say things again.
- Yeah... I think this is the right call…
Ⅳ. There’s a stillness to the room now. Neither of them feels like moving. They feel as though they’ve done something; like they’re closer to reaching something indiscernible. They frown, and then Oscar speaks, a maddened grin folding around the words.
- I suppose this means we’ll be going to your dad’s barbeque then?
A thousand dust particles erupt from the earth.
Oscar laughs. The sound of it is jarring, too loud for the room. It’s a sound that doesn’t feel like it belongs to him; he can’t control the flow of it as it spills from his mouth. He casts his eyes over the room, trying to find a target, something to absorb the sound, but everything recoils from his gaze, completely unsure of what to do with this cursed vibration hurtling itself toward them -
And so he keeps laughing, spittle ricocheting off his teeth until his mouth dries out and the sound of it skids to a halt in his throat.
And the dust and the silence return to the ground.
Jared is looking with zany eyes at Oscar.
- What the fuck was that?
- I have no idea what that was.
- Personally, and obviously this is just a suggestion, but maybe you could just lock that sound away in whatever cell used to contain it, and weld that shit shut, nice and tight. Just a suggestion, obviously.
- Yeah, well, I’m just saying we’d all stand to benefit.
- I think we’re in agreement...
Outside the sky places a grey filter over the world. Jared and Oscar look at each other as a warm curtain of daylight-darkness draws itself over the room.
Jared’s phone rings again.
Ⅴ. Oscar picks up some bread and pops it into the basket in Jared’s hand. He looks at Jared mischievously.
- Hey -
He taps Jared on the shoulder -
- You’ve been acting kind of ‘a loaf’ since we got here...
He holds the loaf of bread up to his head.
- A loaf?
- Yeah, ‘A loaf’
- As in I’m squishy and cuddly?
- That too, but no, I’m saying that you’ve been acting ‘A loaf’
- Ohhhh, okay. Yeah, guess so. Sorry.
Jared continues idly scanning the shelves of the supermarket, looking for something to evoke a vague sense of comfort in his chest. Nothing yet. His phone vibrates in his pocket. It’s been on silent for the last few hours. Since they left the house. He wishes he’d left it at home.
Oscar is deeper in the snack aisle. He turns to look at Oscar, bouncing his eyebrows and jerking his head at something he’s found on the shelves. Jared walks closer, and looks in the general area Oscar seemed to be motioning towards.
- What am I looking for here?
- Something you like.
- There’s nothing here I like.
- Sure there is, look. Right there.
Oscar points at a pack of biscuits on the shelf. Bourbon biscuits. It’s the last pack of its kind. It’s not placed neatly on the shelf, facing potential customers. It lies diagonally, as though someone had thrown it there after deciding they didn’t want it. Jared doesn’t like Bourbon biscuits...
- You only see me buy these because my dad loves them. I take them to him when I visit, whenever that is.
- But I always see them lying there in the cupboard at home.
- Yeah, I put them there till I’m ready to visit. It’s like a commitment I make to seeing him.
- Oh… that’s fair.
Oscar’s eyebrows sink into the skin above his eyes.
- Are you going to buy them?
Jared looks at the bourbons. He exhales, and the air leaves his lungs, flushing the energy from his body.
- I don’t know...
Oscar waits for Jared to complete his thoughts. Moments pass. Oscar can see a tired tension in Jared’s face, the muscles in his face and neck contracting beneath the skin. He’s determined to make a decision there, even if it turns him to stone. Oscar lures Jared’s gaze away from the shelf with a gentle hand curled around his upper arm.
- Let’s go around the shop again first, see if there’s anything else we want…
- Sure. Good idea.
A thought strikes Oscar’s eyes.
- Actually, why don’t we get brunch? Seeing as we’re skipping tomorrow.
Yeah, why not.
They turn and stride toward the front of the shop, eyes homing in on the ‘Cafe’ signage hanging from the roof. Behind them, a little girl waddles over to where they were standing, watching them curiously, a bar of chocolate melting in her palms. She turns away from them and sees the corner of the pack of bourbons jutting out from the shelf. She reaches up, pawing at it until it topples to the ground. She picks it up, shaking it, enjoying the sound of it. She giggles to herself and runs off down the aisle, leaving behind the mauled chocolate bar to congeal on the acrylic floor.
Ⅵ. Oscar puts his knife and fork down on his plate, a muffled clang marking the end of his feeding session. Jared glances upwards as he’s lifting a fork-full of beans to his mouth. He sees Oscar finish, smiling a satisfied smile at him from across the table, and he suddenly becomes conscious of how precarious the beans are: stacked upon each other, sliding dangerously toward the edge of the outer prongs. Panicking, he darts the fork in the general direction of his mouth, and before he can register it happening, he sees beans bounce back onto his plate, onto his lap, onto his shoes, and finally, onto the floor, where they roll off joyfully into the nether-world beneath the table.
- I think you may have missed.
- Nah, that was deliberate. I wanted the beans to be free. The beans deserve to be free.
Oscar stifles a chuckle.
- May I ask where this sudden empathy for beans has come from?
- I was just looking at them on my fork, and I thought: look how terrified they are, bound together in that weird beany goop, waiting for me to eat them.
Just imagine, there you are, chilling there with your pals, when suddenly you’re airborne, hurtling toward this gaping abyss, and there’s this huge mass of flesh flopping around, gurgling right at you. Then the darkness takes you; you’re in the giant’s stomach, in a pool of acid, and there’s nothing you can do, as this floaty thoughtless bean; all you can do is wait for it to consume you, until there’s nothing left of you. That’s some scary shit.
Jared cuts into a fried egg and plops it onto his tongue, his eyes betraying his dissociation from the act. Oscar’s takes a deep breath. He feels tired all of a sudden.
- Well, that does sound pretty terrifying, but I doubt the beans were thinking about anything. They’re just beans.
- That’s what we're taught to think. That’s why the beans need us to do the thinking for them, so we can figure out why they shouldn’t suffer. We have a responsibility to the beans.
Oscar stays quiet, unwilling to carry Jared’s thoughts any further. He turns his head to look out of the cafe’s window. A woman about their age is on the other side, rain flattening her hair against her head. She moves a bag-for-life from one hand to another to free her fingers and reaches into her pocket. She pulls out her phone and tries to make a call. She frowns, shoots daggers at the sky, and brushes the screen against the fabric of her jeans. That seems to do the trick, and before the rain can thwart her again, she quickly thumbs in the necessary sequence of actions to initiate a call. Oscar can’t quite tell, but he suspects that some of the droplets coursing down her cheeks are coming from her eyes.
The table vibrates, drawing Oscar’s eyes back into the room. It’s Jared’s phone.
Oscar stares at the muscles in Jared’s face, expecting at any moment to see their sudden atrophy. Jared picks up the phone, nothing on his face belying any urge or feeling, and, without even glancing at the screen, he lifts his bum from the chair and slides the phone into his pocket. He carries on eating.
Jared is concentrating very carefully on the steps he needs to take. The quantity of the beans he wants; the angle he should hold the fork over the plate; the point at which he should lay it down; how much force he should apply with his knife to scrape the beans onto his fork. Eating these beans; this is the thing that he is doing.
- So, do you want to get the biscuits?
Fuck the biscuits.
- I’m not sure yet.
Jared lowers the fork onto his plate, scrapes the beans toward it with his knife, applying a little extra force to nudge them over the lip of the outside prong. He pauses with the beans now sitting on his fork, considering the journey they’d need to take through the air to reach his mouth -
But it won’t stop. It keeps buzzing away, sending shivers up and down his leg.
- I think you should answer it.
Jared lets the cutlery in his palms slide from his grasp. The beans, which only a second ago were piled upon each other, ooze from the fork and onto the plate, settling into a more relaxed formation. This is their chance. They could make a run for it if they really wanted to. But they don’t. They have nowhere else to go, really. They don’t have it in them. When Jared speaks, only the beans can hear him.
- Let the fucker buzz.
Oscar shuffles in his chair. A waiter comes over, his apron strings loose. He doesn’t ask them about their meal, and he doesn’t ask Jared if he’s finished as he’s picking up their plates. He pauses as he straightens his back, and makes a show of looking at the scattering of beans on the cafe floor.
- Sorry about the beans, this one’s a bit of an animal when he eats.
The waiter raises his eyebrows and diverts his eyes to one side as he turns to leave them. Oscar purses his lips, directing his gaze downward at the table.
The waiter returns thirty seconds later, a dustpan and brush dragging along behind him. He potters around their table, making sure to brush up all the beans into their new home: an uneaten paradise where they could decay at their own goddamn pace.
- Your foot, please.
Jared didn’t notice the waiter standing over him, and it takes a moment for his ears to bring him up to speed. His foot stutters as he lifts it up. Seeing nothing, he turns his ankle to see three beans squashed into the soles of his shoes. Before he can register it, the waiter is scraping them off with his brush.
Jared considered it a question, but the waiter didn't hear it. He’s gone again. It’s Oscar who speaks next.
- I’m going to the toilet, won’t be long.
- Alright, I’ll get the bill.
Jared sits and stares at Oscar’s chest until he leaves the chair and his vision strikes the back of the chair. The phone in his pocket is still buzzing away, unwilling to stop, and he finds its persistence eroding, slowly cutting away at any defiance he may have once felt. Indifference glazes over his eyes. His fingers tap an uneven rhythm on the phone strapped to his thigh. He could answer it, summon that voice back to the present, and he could listen to it, and hear what it had to say, and then go and get the biscuits, and see his father, because he had an obligation, and that was enough.
Jared gets up from his chair and leaves the cafe, and then the supermarket. He walks out, into the rain, through the car park, to the shelter of a tree atop an embankment. Below is a motorway, cars slicing through the rain. He takes out his phone.
Ⅶ. - Why are you calling?
- Wanted to talk with my boy, that too much to ask?
- Given everything, I’m going to go with yes.
- Given everything? The fuck you on about?
- Given all the shit you’ve given me. I don’t need to hear it anymore…
- You need to hear it now more than ever.
- Don’t think I do.
- What is it with these fucking lame responses?
- I -
- You’re fucking useless, aren’t you, Jerry?
- You heard me, you sorry piece of shit. If you’re going to hate someone, fucking do it right. You know, like I showed you.
You show your teeth, stare them right in the eye, and you jab your finger into their chest, over and over, and you spit your hatred at them, hack it up and get it right in their eyes, you fucking blind them with that shit -
You tell them they’re a fucking huge waste of space, that they can’t do nothing right, you tell them all they’ve done is ruin your life, and you can’t stand how all they do is cry and want you to be sorry for them with their piddly arse feelings -
You say that to them, just like I did with you and your cripple of a father. Never stood up for you, did he?
- Fuck off. You don’t get to talk about him like that.
- I can say what I bloody well like. Your father’s been a waste of space for a LONG time. Expected everyone to fucking wait on him, tidy up his shit and all his other fucking messes. You should hate him. Fuck, I know you do, Jerry.
- I don’t hate him.
- Oh really, then why didn’t you buy the fucking biscuits Jerry? Why do you always lie?
It’s fucking sad. You’ve been lying to yourself all your life. Never had a clue who you were, still think you’re some gay fucker, but I know better, I know you like them girlies really...
Why are you calling?
- Again with that fucking question. You seriously want me to answer that? HA. Fine. I’m calling ‘cause that’s what you want, Jerry. You miss my voice, how I told you who and what you were and you had to accept it. You miss that CLARITY. That’s all gone now. I’ve seen you, trying so hard to escape your reality, and it’s fucking sad, I thought I raised you to have bigger balls -
- I think we’re done here.
- Oh no no no no no no no we’re not done, we’re never DONE, you’ll always pick up that phone, and don’t you worry, it’ll always be buzzing for you, fucking always, don’t you worry about that -
- I’ve got nothing more to say.
- Then why don’t you fucking put the phone down you daft cunt - ‘cause you can’t, that’s why -
- You’ve got nothing to offer me.
- Well that’s another lie, ‘cause you’ll get some inheritance from me when I die. I’m going to leave you some nice, shiny, GOLDEN, nuggets of shit, I just know you’ll fucking love that -
Ⅷ. Jared looks at the phone in his hand. The voice is gone, or at least, it can’t get through the screen anymore. His reflection in that liquid blackness seems oddly stark, and it’s not until he remembers the rain beating down from above that he realises: his phone is wet. When he tilts it to one side, a small puddle of water gushes from the glass and plummets to the grass beneath his feet. He touches the Home button, expecting to see his screensaver pop up, but nothing happens.
- Dead, I guess.
He wipes the phone’s wetness onto his jumper and then slides it back into his pocket. When he looks up, there’s a silhouette moving towards him, wading through the streaking vitriol of the storm. He frowns, eyeing the part of the figure that should be its face, trying to discern its features. He tries blinking away the droplets weighing on his brows; as if that were somehow affecting his vision. He rubs furiously, and when his vision clears, a face forms in front of him, its brows creased, nose flared, and its eyes bug-eyed with anger.
- You thought I wasn’t going to follow you out here because it’s raining? Seriously? If you’re going to make a run for it, at least have the decency of making a good go at it.
- Sorry, what have I done?
- Your food. You need to pay for it. That’s the world we live in. Sorry to break it to you.
Jared sees a car reverse out of its parking space, roadkill etched into its tyres.
- Right, yeah. The world we live in, I’m hearing ya, don’t worry. I was on my way back.
Waiter taps his foot. In his head, this altercation had played out very differently. This guy, the Cute-guy-with-the-brooding-face-and-the-absent-eyes, had been walking down the street, blatantly, no, arrogantly, ignoring his obligation to pay for his lovely brunch. Waiter had tapped him on the shoulder, and this arrogant prick had turned around with this fox-like grin on his face, and said ‘yeah?’ with those perfectly arching eyebrows. It was there and then that Waiter had laid down the law, telling this complete knob, the Cute-guy-with-the-brooding-face-and-the-absent-eyes, that he was bang out of order, and that he needed to pay right now, or else there’d be consequences. And the cheek on him, the guy had taken a step toward Waiter and said: ‘...What kind of consequences are we talking about exactly?’, which is when Waiter had felt all the blood gush through the falls of his body.
- Shall we go inside then?
The words attached themselves to the wrong scene, and Waiter looked at Jared for a second, a look of shock jolting through his face before he remembered where he was. He’s in the rain, bored of this interaction, and wanting it to end.
- Yeah, right, come on then.
Jared and Waiter walk side by side to the supermarket entrance. The storm’s bluster seems to calm down as they get closer.
- So, uh, has it been a busy day for you?
- Huh? Oh… slightly more eventful than most, I guess.
- Haha, yeah. Sorry about that.
Oscar is inside, his phone to his ear. When he sees Jared and Waiter his arms flop to his sides. He waits silently as they approach. Jared shrugs one of his shoulders, but he’s not sure what he means by it. Waiter is a little surprised to see him standing there; he’d completely forgotten about the Cute-guy-with-the-brooding-face-and-the-absent-eyes’s boyfriend. The scene he’d imagined minutes earlier fractured and cracked, leaving shards of impossibility to scratch at his heart; the falls of his body trickle to a halt, leaving a stillness in its wake.
When Oscar looks at Waiter, he’s surprised to see the sad eyes of a wounded animal looking back. Waiter stops just in front of him before he speaks.
- Thought you’d tried to do a runner…
Oscar turns his head to Jared, there’s no surprise in his voice.
- Jazz, you didn’t pay?
- Got a call.
Oscar purses his lips and considers Jared. His hands are on his hips. Waiter interrupts the silence.
- Hey, so, you are going to pay, aren’t you? Can we hurry this along?
- Yeah, I’ll pay now, let’s go.
- Thank you.
Waiter darts off in the direction of the cafe. It was nearly over, just this last step and they’d be gone.
Oscar catches Jared’s eye before he turns to follow.
- I’ll meet you back here.
Jared glances up at the clock above the supermarket entrance.
- We’re on time for the next bus.
Ⅸ. The bus stops. Four new passengers walk on. Two boys, teenagers, pay for their fare first. They’re giggling at something. One of them pulls out a twenty-pound note to pay.
- Got anything smaller?
- Nah, soz.
Bus-driver, a woman in her late thirties, doesn’t meet their eyes. She goes about the process of finding change; she reaches into the different pockets of her jacket, the various compartments around the driver’s seat. Thirty seconds into her search, her face drops: she may not have the exact change. Her fingers become frantic, clattering around the booth like spider legs scrambling for purchase. The boy with the twenty-pound note turns to the other boy, mouthing something about how he wishes she’d hurry the fuck up. Someone already sitting down sighs, exasperated, clearly having somewhere self-important to be.
Bus-driver finds the change she needs and fumbles them into the boy’s hands. A pound coin slips through a finger and pings under a seat.
- Fuck sake!
The boys leave Bus-driver to deal with the next passenger. They don’t bother looking for their pound coin - they go straight for the stairs and bound up to the upper deck. The coin rolls under the first two rows of seats and falters at the tip of Oscar’s toe. He sees the backs of the boys ascending.
- Must not want this then.
He bends down in his seat, picks it up and pockets the pound coin, meeting the eyes of an elderly woman as he rises. She holds his gaze just long enough to transmit her shame and then returns to look at a man and his dog limping together on the pavement outside.
When Jared and Oscar had walked onto the bus there had been nowhere to sit together. Not what Oscar would have wanted, in an ideal world. He’d sat in the third row, in the aisle seat on the left side of the bus. Jared was forced to sit in the front row by the window, on the right side of the bus. Jared hadn’t turned around to acknowledge Oscar for the entire journey. From what Oscar can see, he’s particularly interested in the advert on the glass screen in front of him. There’s a man keeled over in laughter in the bottom right corner of the poster. As for the words, the only ones Oscar can see are: “Life is for laughing, so join us in paving the road ahead with joy”.
The last of the four new passengers get onto the bus. She’s wearing a long shawl and carrying something long and rectangular, concealed by a drape. The eyes on the bus glance over the newcomer with vague interest, but even the mystery of a concealed object can’t hold their attention for long.
There’s no room for Mrs Mystery Object to sit downstairs, but she’d have a hard time walking up the stairs to the upper deck with the mystery object in hand. Still uncertain of where to go, she hovers in the priority zone, twisting around, shuffling her feet, as though the bus was hiding a secret pressure plate that could close all the eyes and save her from their gaze.
The doors slide closed and the bus breathes out as it rises on its suspension. As the bus moves off, Mrs Mystery Object gets a little more desperate. She’s in a precarious position. Bus journeys, after all, are infamous for their jolting motions, and if one such motion were to wash over the bus now, she’d lose her grip on the mystery object, and then the drape and the mystery would flap away.
Minutes pass, and then the bus grinds to a halt at its next stop. Mrs Mystery Object seems to have settled into a suitable bracing position. She sways slightly as the bus stops.
No-one gets on the bus, not this time, and it moves off again. Oscar looks over at Jared. His neck is slack, his head lolling on his left shoulder. Asleep.
The bus goes through its rhythms. Humming, grinding, sliding, rising; humming, grinding, sliding, rising. At one point the man sitting next to Oscar leaves the bus, and Oscar thinks about disturbing Jared and telling him to come over. Despite the thought, his body doesn’t engage. He doesn’t reach out. Instead, he lies back and closes his eyes. He breathes out through his mouth, breathes in the vacuous air, and relaxes into the rhythms of the bus.
Time passes, but Oscar doesn’t feel it happen.
Jared wakes him up.
- Our stop.
They leave the bus.
Ⅹ. Jared and Oscar round a corner into their street. The storm has abated, and the day is closing down. Oscar reaches for Jared’s hand and locks their fingers together, giving them a squeeze. Jared reciprocates, but his eyes remain focused on the air in front of him. They continue like that for a few more seconds, until a car driving towards them decides to turn on its headlights. It was a coincidence - the driver had just noticed the encroaching darkness - but they both tense, an instinct to take flight sizzling through their nerves. They stop walking, and Oscar takes a step forward to meet the car, leaning down, hands on the bottom of his thighs. The car pulls up alongside, the window lowered; a middle-aged, beer-bellied and balding man hovers into view.
- I’m looking for this tree…
A hastily scribbled drawing of a tree is shoved in front of Oscar’s eyes. It seems like a fairly unremarkable looking thing. A lot of trees look like this tree.
- Is there something… special? about it?
- I’m not paying you to ask questions.
- You’re not paying me?
- No - it’s just an expression you mug.
- Hmmm okay, sure…
- What about your bum boy over there, maybe he knows?
- I -
- Hey, you! You got a minute?
Oscar can’t see Jared properly in the failing light, but he wouldn’t be surprised if the sudden gush of wind that washed over his face was one of Jared’s gale-force sighs. His face materialises moments later, eyes sharp, squinting at the beer-bellied man.
- Have you seen this?
The scribbled tree rises into the frame of the window.
- Believe I have.
- Yeah? Can you direct me?
- Sure. So there’s a forest. Just turn right at the junction there and follow the road to the next junction. You’ll see a field straight ahead and the edge of the forest…
Oscar straightens his back and turns away to look down the street. He sees a faint blue light pulsing from below the hedge on the corner of the next junction. Near their bungalow.
- Then where do I go from there?
- Well, just go into the forest, and the tree you’re looking for is probably in there… somewhere.
- Are you fucking kidding me?
Oscar begins walking towards the pulsing light.
- Nope, pretty sure you’ll find your tree there.
- Does it look like there are other trees around this tree? This is a special fucking tree, you understand? It stands on its own, see?
Beer-Belly flicks the drawing.
- Nothing special about it, just a regular tree with a trunk, some branches, long, luscious leaves...
- Oh shut up -
The car accelerates, the words “fucking”, “useless”, and “cunt”, fading into the distance.
- You’re fucking welcome, pal.
Jared watches the car leave, then takes a deep breath and relaxes his shoulders. He turns around to speak to Oscar, only to see him rounding the corner of the hedge leading to the front of their bungalow. He shrugs and follows after.
Oscar is standing still, unsure of how to proceed. As he rounded the corner, he was met by a police car; parked on the curb, its siren lights spinning a silent alarm in the gloom. He looks over his shoulder, sees that Beer-Belly has just left and that Jared is closing the space between them. A sense of knowing invades his body, and all he wants is to wrap Jared up and carry him away.
Jared is closer now; Oscar can see his eyes as they roll in their sockets.
- Bit of a dickhead, wasn’t he?
Why are you standing there like that?
Oscar stands still, his eyes following Jared as he reaches his side, and then overtakes him. He doesn’t read anything from the police car.
- Oop, neighbours are in trouble, unless you’ve got a secret life of crime you’d like to tell me about?
Jared opens the gate leading into their front garden. He lifts the latch, and as he slides the gate open, it takes him a moment before he has the chance to look up. When he does, the gate stops opening, moaning softly as it lulls to a halt. Jared releases his grip, and a stillness falls.
A delicate voice, a man’s voice, placates the silence.
- Hello there. Your name wouldn’t happen to be Jared, would it?
Oscar hears the question, but he’s not sure Jared has.
- Excuse me, sir?
Oscar’s feet carry him forward. He puts a hand on Jared’s shoulder, edging past to open the gate. There are two police officers there. The one closest, the man who’d asked the question, has his peaked cap against his chest. His hair is a mess, matted after a long day.
- Sorry, officer, what seems to be the problem?
- We’re looking for a Mr Jared Taylor, is that either one of you?
- Yes, that would be my partner.
- Ok, and this is your residence?
- It is, we’re both living here.
- May we come inside?
Oscar pauses for a second.
Oscar turns around. Jared is not in view.
Something clasps its talons around his heart -
And then it lets go. Jared comes into view, creaking open the front gate.
- Sure, let’s go inside. I’ll put the kettle on.
He strides past them all, eyes tracing a line in the concrete up to the base of the front door. With a cacophony of clacking keys, it’s open, and one by one, they step inside and enter the kitchen.
He knows what this is, and he thinks it's the end. There’s a slight smile creeping onto his face, can’t you see it? But this isn’t over, not by a long shot. I’m still here, keeping an eye on you, Jerry, don’t you worry.
ⅩⅠ. There he goes, my son, some new energy in his step. Putting the kettle on, like this is normal. Police are there, sitting awkwardly round the counter in the kitchen, hunched forward on those shitty stools he has. The kettle’s boiling, and they’ve got the big fella, the guy who seems to be delivering my news, sitting on the worst of them all; it’ll snap in two before this little chat is over.
- Oh, don’t worry about the tea, we don’t want to be in your way for long.
Sit the fuck down, Jerry, the man’s got a message for you.
There he goes, good lad. Up onto the stool, that’s it. Plant your bum.
That friend of his is sitting down on the stool next to him, and as soon as he’s seated, his hand crawls across the air underneath the counter, those gross and spindly little fingers landing on his thigh, squeezing it. Checking how tender the meat is. But Jerry doesn't react, that shit grosses him out. He tolerates it though; doesn’t want to hurt any feelings. He’s always been kind like that; meant I always had to be there.
- So there’s no good way to say this, but...
Come on, spit it out. No, don’t look at her. The other officer, now she’s one of those stock images you can get off the internet. Can barely see her eyes below the peak of her cap. She drew the long straw, apparently, so all she has to do is sit there and make sure it happens. The fella is on his own here.
- It is with profound regret...
Here we go -
- That I must inform you that, earlier today…
That’s it, nearly there, one last squeeze.
- We found your mother, Mrs. Elizabath Taylor…
There it is. My name.
Ha, look at his face, he looks relieved. He thinks he’s free now. I’m dead, so he doesn’t have to think about me anymore, that’s what he thinks. You’re not free, Jerry, don’t fool yourself. He’s going to ask questions now, he’ll want all the grisly details.
- How did she die?
It wasn’t pretty.
- We believe it was murder. She had multiple stab wounds…
- How many?
He wants to know how much pain I was in at the end. It was… a lot.
- Uh… well… the autopsy isn’t complete… but we could probably make a call, they might be done by now…
Poor fella, he’s expecting Jerry to let it go, let this little bit of knowledge escape him. But he needs it, my sweet Jerry, he needs to know how much I died.
- I can make that call… If you like?
- Yeah, go on. I’ll finish making the tea.
He slides off the stool. Nothing’s changed on his face, but I can see his insides itching. Making tea isn’t going to scratch that itch, Jerry.
- Have you finished the autopsy?
Uh, yeah, he wants to know how many stab wounds there were…
She had 30 stab wounds.
- For how many of those was she alive?
- I -
The fella straightens his spine, this one he was expecting. Not in the current context, sure, but it was close enough. He thinks he’s doing well, poor soul.
- I’m sure she didn’t suffer much.
- That’s not what I asked.
- Jazz, do you really -
Shut the fuck up, bumder.
- I do, I want to know.
That’s right, you tell him, Jerry.
The old police fella slumps his shoulders. This is his first time doing this, and the manual said it would go a bit differently, didn’t it? Probably feels lied to, but what can I say? All manuals are full of lies, he should know better.
- I - I’m sorry, sir, but that’s impossible to know.
Fucking liar, you just want it to be over. Doesn’t matter, though, does it Jerry? In your mind I suffered A LOT, and well, I did, thankfully. Gave you just what you wanted, there.
- I see… Where did you find her?
- Uh, in an alley, off Brim Street -
- Where exactly in the alley?
- Well, it was, to one side, I suppose, and, uh -
- Paint me a picture.
- A picture?
- Yeah, like what was around her. Surely you took photos, what did they capture?
- Jazz, stop.
No no no, you keep going, Jerry, keep going, that’s it. You need this.
- Do you have a photo?
- Um, well, we do, but… we can’t show any of them to you…
He turns to his partner - still can’t see her fucking eyes - he needs a way out. He’s not even sure if he’s telling the truth.
Just show Jerry the fucking picture man.
- Why not?
- Uh, because...
He has no fucking clue, how green is this guy? Looks fucking old to me.
- It’s… it’s evidence…
- Maybe I can help you find out who killed her. Maybe I’ll see something in the photo that you’ve missed, something specific, that only I would know, because she’s my mum.
Oh, you’re a sharp one, aren’t you, Jerry? Bet you wish you were as sharp as that when it came to figuring yourself out.
- I understand that you want to find your mum’s killer, but perhaps we should revisit this another day?
It’s the other one who’s spoken, little miss half-eyes. We were so close, why can’t people mind their own business? Jerry needs to know, can’t she understand that? Bitch.
- Now is not the best time to go into these details. You’re in shock.
Oh, is he now? This can’t be in the manual. Police aren’t therapists, and I should fucking know, I’m always dealing with the cunts, even now. Not a shred of empathy in their peaky hearts.
Go ahead, miss, put on your show then.
- I don’t know what your relationship was like with the deceased, but in any case, we can put you in contact with a number of counselling services. Perhaps they can help you process some of the feelings you’re currently having.
Get out while you can, that’s the score, isn’t it; pass on the fucked-up mind to the people who think they can un-fuck it, then get the fuck out. Then you can go home and feel sad about the traumatic experience you had delivering the news of mummy’s tragic stabbing. Poor fucking you.
Jerry doesn’t look too happy right now. Does he fuck want to process anything, he just wants to know that his mummy suffered. Don’t worry, Jerry, I did, I fucking did, and I did it for you, so you could have me with you now, by your side, like you’ve always wanted.
- Jazz, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea?
- Would you like us to give you a number?
No, he doesn’t, would you kindly fuck off?
- I think we’d like that, thank you.
No you wouldn’t, you really fucking wouldn’t like that. You’d be gone in a flash if you saw what was hiding in that head of his.
- No problem...
You disgust me.
- Again, sorry for your loss.
Dripping with bullshit, miss. Wipe your chops.
The old one gets off the stool, and it snaps in two. Didn’t I tell you that would happen? I am loving this seeing into the future shit. Nearly bangs his head on the counter on his way down. Would have killed him if it did. Fucking shame it didn’t.
- Shit! Are you okay? I’m so sorry - I should have mentioned that one’s on its last legs.
Oop, give him a sec, he’s just catching his breath. He’s not used to near death experiences, this one.
- Not - not to worry, I’m alright… anyway -
He’s like a slug the way he slimes up the counter.
- We’ll be leaving now. You probably want to be alone.
No, he wants the picture of me splayed over the bins behind the Royal Stag: intestines hanging out, bits of moldy cheese and rotting meat mingling with my guts. There were rats, fucking huge ones, gorging on it. What a feast. I was real fucked up Jerry, you should’ve been there.
- Thank you, officers.
For what? They’ve been absolutely fucking useless. Fucking. Useless. Cunts.
What is it, Jerry?
- How did you find me? Does the rest of my family know?
- You’re the only family we could find. She had a scrap of paper in her jeans, which had this address on it. She also had what we believe to be a burner phone; the only number in it was yours. We’ve been trying to contact you all day.
You’re the only one I actually gave a shit about, Jerry.
- Is there anyone else we should contact?
Why bother, they won’t care.
- Yes, but I’ll deal with it. Tomorrow.
- Okay then. Goodbye, both of you. Sorry again for your loss.
Whatever, off they pop. Doesn’t matter, you’ve still got me Jerry. Knowing the details would have been nice, but I’m here, that’s all that matters. I’ll stay with you for as long as you need me, to make sure you don’t stray again. First order of business, getting your friend out of here.
ⅩⅠⅠ. They’ve gone. The front door half-clicks as the latch half-enters the door-jamb. The door lolls open. Cool air sneaks in through the gap and wraps itself around the room. Jared and Oscar are quiet. Everything is quiet. Oscar looks at Jared, trying to draw a pathway between their eyes.
He wants to talk about me, so he can figure out how to get me out of here. He’s weighing his options, but he’s got none, poor fucker. Almost feel sorry for him, even though he’s a fag.
Then the wind makes itself known, moaning through the half-open door.
Oscar, who had remained on his stool while the officers had left, rises, and makes his way over to Jared, who’s standing by the kettle. On his way, he nudges the door closed.
As Oscar gets closer, Jared half-turns away and flips the switch on the kettle; this is the third time he’s set it to boil. He pretends to consider something in the gap between the counter and the wall.
Don’t touch him.
Oscar wriggles his arms around Jared, lifting the dead weights of Jared’s arms to lie on his shoulders; he has to squat a little to accommodate them. With the weights now on his shoulder, Oscar lays his head on Jared’s chest and plants his palms on his back. He squeezes, with all the love he can muster, trying to squeeze out whatever’s inside. He feels something stirring.
- This has to be the worst hug you’ve ever given me.
That’s because he doesn’t want your fucking hug.
Jared let’s go and falls into Oscar’s embrace. He sobs, tears seeping into the fabric of Oscar’s jumper. He can’t hold himself up, and Oscar has to re-adjust his footing to stop them from collapsing to the ground.
- Come on, Jazz, let’s go sit down.
Jerry, fucking get off him, he can’t help you. Fuck.
They leave the kitchen and walk to the living room, Jared leaning on Oscar for support.
Jerry doesn’t need his fucking support, he’s never needed fucking support.
Oscar lays Jared down on the sofa. He sits next to him and lifts his head up to lie on his lap. Jared’s knees curl up, digging into Oscar's thighs as his body heaves. Oscar stares at the TV, stroking Jared’s head, a vice clamping down on his chest with each contraction of Jared’s body.
- It’s okay, Jazz.
What? You think sitting on the sofa together and cradling his head like he’s some fucking baby is going to help him, make him forget me? What’s your name? Oscar? Fucking get out. You hear me? You fucking hear me, you piece of shit?! I’m. Fucking. Talking. To. YOU.
The wind thunders against the living room window - an angry spirit banging weightless hands against the glass, screaming to be let inside.
He’s not listening to me. Why isn’t he fucking listening?
Oscar sees the flash of a shadow as it thuds against the glass. Something solid, but soft, like a clump of earth.
Listen to that, Oscar. You hear that? You fucking hear that?!
A spattering of shadows cast themselves against the window, beating a deafening rhythm.
Hear me, you stupid cunt.
Oscar does his best to ignore it. He focuses on the heat of their bodies, the labour in their breaths. He closes his eyes.
Jared stirs. He tears his head away from his palms and twists his neck to look up at Oscar. The globules in his eyes refract the image of a monstrous face, shuttered eyes shielding itself from…
At least you can hear me, Jerry. Yeah, that’s right. That’s me. Say hello.
Jared’s looks across the room, his eyes landing on the window. He tracks the shadows clamouring for entry, long enough for the tears in his eyes to dry out.
Get him out of here, Jerry.
Jared pulls his gaze from the window and looks again at Oscar.
Tell him to fuck off, Jerry.
Jared reaches up a hand, cupping one side of Oscar’s face, prompting his eyes to open.
The fuck you doing?
Oscar’s eyes open as his head is pulled down to meet Jared’s lips. It’s not a great kiss to begin with; Jared’s mouth is wet and sticky from all the sobbing, Oscar’s lips dry and cracked from doing all the talking. But Jared’s persists, clasping his fingers onto a tuft of Oscar’s hair, sending a shot of sensation down his spine; Jared smiles into it, and so does Oscar, causing their teeth to clatter together, but they ignore the pain; Oscar tries to shoot in his tongue, only to feel it scrape against teeth. It’s chaos, all sense of technique completely lost. But they don’t care; they keep each other’s heads close, pressed against each other, and they laugh: at themselves, at the day, at death, at this really terrible foreplay -
So what? You’re just going to fuck right in front of me? Good luck with that, you won’t be able to get it up, Jerry. Stop pretending. Jerry, you hear me? Come to your fucking senses, Jerry. JERRY. Stop fucking around.
But Jared’sjust getting started.
Why haven’t they been doing this more often? This is pretty fun.
They’re going to fuck now.
ⅩⅠⅠⅠ. To Jared, there’s something different about the ceiling, as though it were higher up, more distant, and he could take in more of its detail. He stares at it for a while, nothing in his body stirring, asking him to be anywhere else.
He rolls onto his side and lifts his phone off the bedside table; there’s missed calls, and his heart stops; but they’re from yesterday - they were the police calling him, from his mother’s phone.
It’s 5:54 on Sunday morning, which means that the sun is beginning to rise. He can’t remember being up this early before.
He hears a woodpecker in the distance. He counts the seconds between each round of pecking. When he thinks he’s discovered a pattern, he tries to pre-empt the woodpecker, imitating it by flicking his tongue rapidly against the roof of his mouth; he’s always milliseconds off.
After a dozen or so tries at pre-empting the woodpecker, the effort lulls him back to sleep.
He wakes up again a few hours later. He reaches out a hand, searching for Oscar’s bum. He’s not there. Jared sits up, shakes his head to rid the dizziness passing through, and then flings the quilt to one side. He pulls on some lounging shorts, hopping as he tries to maintain his balance.
- In the kitchen!
He frowns at himself. He hadn’t been expecting a response. As he pulls up the shorts to his waist, he pauses, and remembers, he has something important to do today. He scratches his head, the new realisation changing his plans to rush into the kitchen for breakfast. He takes the lounging shorts off, and picks up the towel draped over the radiator in the room.
- Having a shower!
He enters their en-suite. It’s a modest affair, a narrow room: there was a shower cubicle, with a toilet opposite, and a sink between the door and the shower; every time they showered, they had to squeeze through the gap between the sink and the opposite wall. The shower hasn’t been cleaned for a week; they usually do it every Saturday. He throws the towel over the sink and squeezes himself into the shower cubicle. He flicks the water on, forgetting that it would be cold to begin with; he gasps and then nuzzles himself into the warmth when it arrives.
He can hear Oscar singing in the kitchen, and he tries to catch the melody and hum it to himself. He opens his mouth to take breaths between hums and allows the water from above to flow through his mouth and down the contours of his neck.
When he’s done, he turns the water off and slides out of the shower, wraps the towel around his shoulders and walks into the bedroom, dripping dry onto the carpet. He gets dressed, slowly, an item of clothing every few minutes. Before he leaves he takes his phone from the bedside table and slips it into his pocket.
When he reaches the kitchen, Oscar isn’t there. The wind is howl-humming through the panes of the kitchen window; as though the sky was laughing.
There’s a note on the counter, near the collapsed stool. He feels the flow of his blood as it’s pumped from his heart.
He walks, flicking his fingernails against the edges of the kitchen counter as he rounds it to the other side. He picks up the piece of paper. It’s folded: once, twice, three times. He opens it up and spreads it out. He mouths the words, written in green ink:
- Gone to the shop, we’re out of teabags.
He folds up the note carefully and puts it back in its place on the counter. He takes out his phone and thumbs in a text to Oscar:
- Biscuits xxx
The reply takes moments.
- Sure, home soon xxx
He flicks through his contacts, looking for his sister. He initiates a call... No answer. He calls a second time -
- Hey, Jazz.
- Are we going to see you today?
- Yeah, but not at the barbeque.
- Oh? Why’s that?
- Liz is dead...
- The police came by yesterday.
- Have you told dad?
- Not yet.
- I can tell him if you want.
- No, it’s okay. I’ll do it. Just be there when I come by. I’ll be there in an hour.
- Okay.... Are you okay, Jazz?
- Yeah, I’m alright.
- So… She’s gone.
- Yeah, she’s gone.
- Alright, I’ll see you soon, Jazz.
- Bye, sis.
The sound of a key slotting into the front door snatches him away from the conversation. He leaves his phone on the counter.
Oscar walks into the kitchen, kicking the door closed.
- Got the biscuits.
- In the cupboard?
- Oh, are we going?
- Yeah, shouldn’t delay really.
- Okay, well the next bus heading that way should get to our stop in about 20 minutes.
Jared grabs his trainers from the shoe rack, and slots them onto his feet.
- Is it cold?
- Not really.
- Let’s go then.
Jared gestures for the bourbon biscuits, and Oscar hands them over.
As they’re making their way to the bus stop, Oscar feels his head swelling. All the questions he’s been wanting to ask have accumulated, begun forming the outlines of something: a trellis made of string, but always changing; an amorphous, twisting mass of strings; with knotted beginnings, frayed middles and invisible endings. They’re all alive, tugging at his eyes, pulling them out of focus, drawing him inwards to gaze at the hopelessness of it all. He’s terrified, but he has to start somewhere.
- Jazz, I -
- I -
- Go on.
- I want to help you. There’s parts of you missing, and I want to find them.
Jared huffs to himself - a laughing sigh.
- Good luck with that, I’ve looked.
- Maybe I can help you, or we can find people who can.
- You trying to say I’m fucked up, Jazz?
- No! That’s not -
- Chill, just messing with you.
- Oh, you’re funny, aren’t you?
- Pretty funny, I’d say.
- So... yeah. Therapy. I guess that’s a good idea.
- It’s a start. We have that number the police gave me. We can call them this week. We’ll find someone.
- Yeah, okay...
Sorry, for last night, by the way.
- It’s okay, I get it…
- No you don’t.
- No, I really don’t.
- Neither do I, to be fair.
The conversation trails off. It’s an hour or so before midday, and they haven’t seen another car on the road yet. They hear birds tweeting away at each other, and Jared looks at the sky, imagining that he’s part of the conversation.
- It will be slow, you know. I don’t even know if the memories are there anymore.
- That’s fine, Jazz.
They arrive at the bus-stop, and Oscar takes Jared’s hand as they get on. He pays the fare, and they climb to the upper deck. They sit down together on the front seats, overlooking the road. The bus is empty. Once sat, they settle into each other’s bodies, and they hear the bus closing its doors. They stare at the space in front of the bus and start building questions with it. Slowly.