A Do – short story by Simon Howells

A DO

1
At one, we drove out to the hills, where we took a walk. We were there for about an hour, holding hands and talking. We talked about our children, our friends, and our jobs.

We had hoped for sunshine, but it was cloudy, the cloud hanging low and dark. It wasn’t raining.

The wind was nasty. I had a hat. She hadn’t brought one. Her ears looked red and sore. She didn’t complain, though.

We saw a tree we thought the children would have loved to climb. It was stocky with low branches.

After the walk, we drove down to the town and had lunch. Soup with rolls, and milky coffee.

She left me then, because she had to collect the children from school.

2
I walked to the train station and bought my ticket. Then I went into the waiting room, which was heated. A big, white room with long wooden benches. On one sat a woman, black and smartly-dressed. Her hair was rolled up at the back and sides. She wore no make-up. In front of her was a big suitcase she was busy with.
Sitting down on the other bench, I got my book out.

When she was finished with her case, she kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the bench. Her stockinged feet didn’t reach the bottom end. She put her bunched-up hands on her chest. She looked like a child. She closed her eyes and started to talk to herself in a language I didn’t know. She stayed like this for about five minutes. Then she sat up and called someone on her mobile phone.
She spoke in a loud voice. She screeched and laughed. She laughed with her whole body, doubling up, her hand on her chest and then across her stomach. She shook her head and screwed up her eyes.

My train came and I took it.

3
At five, I met up with colleagues at a pub for someone’s leaving do. I chatted with one, a bloke, about how pub life had changed over the last thirty years. We thought it particularly sad that the tradition of arguing the toss had probably died.

One friend had brought one of her own friends, someone we hadn’t met before. Short and plump, she had a nervous manner, and her eyes were heavily marked with black eye-liner. Noticing she was on the edge of things, I started talking to her. She was a twenty-nine-year-old mother of two. Her partner worked away during the week and came back at weekends – ‘to disturb her routine,’ she said.
I mentioned my two children. It was polite chatter.

We all ate and drank, and gassed. After two hours, we went to a pub where there was karaoke. The karaoke was presided over by a long-haired man who was just starting out on this business venture.

We wrote down on slips of paper provided by him the names of the songs we wanted to sing.

Most of the people in the pub were very drunk. Many were sallow-skinned and sad-looking round the eyes and the mouth. Some of them had a number of teeth missing. I was drunk. I decided to slow down. I had a longish train journey ahead of me.

We danced around the pool table.

A girl with broad-shoulders and a rolling gait – and dressed in jeans and a loose white shirt – walked up and down. She was staring at a thin girl in a short skirt who was sitting on one end of the pool table. They each had loose curly hair, possibly permed. I thought the broad girl had a pretty face and I watched her. The other girl had a pointy face. Hopping down from the pool table, she offered a hand to the broad girl and led her out of the room.

The twenty-nine-year-old, by now quite drunk, invited me up for a dance. As we danced, she pulled me up against her. She asked me if I really had children and I said I did, giving her my children’s names.
She said she had thought I was gay. She said, ‘It was your cardigan.’
‘Usually a clincher,’ I said.
She asked me if I was offended and I laughed.
‘What would you like me to say?’ I said.
She looped her arms around my neck and told me she was considering buying a vibrator. I told her to think long and hard before committing herself.

The two girls returned to the room, still holding hands. They were smiling. The broad girl sat at the end of the pool table and the thin girl stood between her legs. They kissed.

One of our number went up to sing. She did a soul song, and everyone was impressed.

We got excited, assuming our turns were coming up. But there was a problem; people who had arrived after us were being invited up to perform. Nominated by my friends to speak to the karaoke man, I went up. He was stuttering and panic-eyed. He said to me, ‘I’m having a terrible time. Can you help me?’
I had a go at sorting out his slips of paper, only it was dark and I was drunk. I found our slips and put them near the top.

Standing off to one side and still watching the two girls, I thought I might go up to the broad girl and tell her she was beautiful. I believed I might do it.
The plump friend sat beside me. She leaned into me, rested her head on my shoulder. Then she lifted her head and asked me my age. When I told her I was forty-one, she shook her head and stroked my face. I said the light was kind.
I was called up to sing. A friend filmed me on his phone as I performed. At one point, I made a crooner gesture with my free hand. I couldn’t hear myself and so didn’t know if I was in tune. I accepted the applause. A friend said I had done well. Thinking of home, I picked up my coat. The plump girl stood across me and when she asked if we would meet again, I said it was up to the stars.
I left the pub and walked to the train station.

4
I got off the train and started my walk home. People were coming out of nightclubs and making for fast food places. Others, standing about, were already eating – chips and burgers and kebabs.

I carried on, until I reached the art gallery. Someone was calling to me. I looked up. On the steps leading up to the entrance stood a man, who beckoned me over.
I reached the bottom of the steps. Because of the lack of light, I couldn’t make out his face; but I could see a hat, wide-brimmed and floppy, and flared trousers.
He asked me where I’d been and I told him. He cut across me, saying he’d been waiting for me for ages.

I was getting cold and so I turned to carry on home, only he came down the steps. He pulled me back by the arm and I faced him.
‘I must get in to see it,’ he said, ‘I can’t wait any longer.’
‘See what?’ I asked and rubbed my arm.
‘The painting,’ he said, ‘of a vase of flowers. But it’s no ordinary vase of flowers. It’s the vasest of vases and the flowerest of flowers. You must know the one,’ he insisted, and I wondered if I did.

He gripped my arm again.

‘You put it there,’ he said, and his face was right up against mine, so that I could smell alcohol and dirt. I pulled away, saying I didn’t know what he was talking about.
He cried then.
‘If I don’t see the picture, I’ll go mad.’ He fell down, sobbing, on to the steps. ‘It’s a still life. It stops everything.’
I said I was sorry, that I couldn’t help him. He stopped crying, looked up at me with clear eyes.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I made a mistake. What was I thinking? I’m sorry.’ With a groan, he placed his head in his hands.
I carried on home, arriving there about twenty minutes later.
Having made myself a cup of tea, I sat in the front room. The light was off, moonlight came through the curtains. The telly was quiet. The books on the shelves were grey. The photos in their frames were blank. I switched on the light and the faces beamed at me. SLQ

 

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