You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
New and exclusive fiction from Maia Jenkins, winner of the Baileys Prize/Grazia First Chapter Competition and the GQ/Norman Mailer Prize. Maia will be reading as part of Litro Live! at the London Short Story Festival on Saturday 21 June – find full details here.
It isn’t until he’s on the floor that he remembers what he said last night. His cheek and jawbone throb beneath his skin and a pair of heels does a demi-plié to the right of his eye. The Reliance is busy – humming, rancid air, a Saturday evening after the derby. No one has noticed him hit the ground.
The toe taps. Another foot flips his body like fish in a pan.
“And Andy, hello to you too.”
Andy pulls him to his feet, cups his armpit and leads him to the bar. Diane follows dabbing his lip with a paper towel although he isn’t bleeding. She’ll love this. He knows Diane is enchanted by her imagined history and she’ll love all of this. He remembers the first night he took her out she pulled a photo from the mantelpiece and flashed it under his eyes.
“This is my great-grandmother,” she told him. “She was born in 1900.”
“Wow,” he said. “No one’s born in 1900 these days.”
“You have a way with words, don’t you?” she said. He liked this idea.
“I’m actually writing a book,” he said. He wasn’t.
“Get you,” she said. “Title?”
He thought of the last place he’d been.
He knew right then they’d be a disaster; that there would be battles worthy of monuments in that living room but he carried on. Now look at them: Andy, his boy, slouch-shouldered, sheepish, sweaty-faced; Diane weeping into someone else’s cheese and onion crisp crumbs. He’s the only one left smiling. He’s a laugh – always has been – but he’ll never forget the night he cracked the one about Andy’s bad leg and he’d looked him in the eye and said “You know, Dad, when everything’s a joke it’s much harder to stay on the laughing side of the stocks.” He’d made a joke about that too. Andy hadn’t laughed at that one either.
Thing is Diane loves men like him: big men who use words to their advantage; men who treat the arrangement of big words like they’re the building blocks of one-track path to the mysteries of the universe. Men who talk too much and realise too late that they don’t have quite enough to say.
“Fancy a drink?” he’d said the first time he saw her.
“Depends,” she’d said. “What are you offering?”
“Great Pinot Noir back at mine,” he said, trying to sound all impressive. “My parents used to drink it at our age.”
“My parents used to drink anything at our age.” He wanted her immediately.
“Double Jim Beam, mate,” he says to Thierry behind the bar. “With a straw.”
“What’s that for?” says Andy.
“Just fancied a straw,” he says.
“He can’t hold the glass up to his mouth he’s shaking so badly,” says Diane. “What did I tell you? Been like this for months.”
He never wrote a word of the novel but let it hang over his marriage like smog, settling thick and black over every argument, every time he reminded her he could have had his way with words, been a writer, started and even finished writing The Reliance if it weren’t for her insistence on existing.
“I think you owe Mum an apology,” says Andy, standing as if to take another swing. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to how tall his son has become. He sips the whiskey. His teeth are soft inside his head, his left incisor coming loose.
Diane never understood those mornings before work when he was freshly shaved, clawless, shrouded in a wicked hangover. She never understood why he wouldn’t change Andy’s nappies or take him to the park. She’d never learn. Talking to that woman started to feel like throwing a pebble down a well and listening for a clatter that never came.
“Sit down, Andy.” He looks up and gives Diane wink. She still blushes the same deep shade of red.
“We’ll be alright won’t we?” he says to her.
She looks away. He remembers that when she was sad she’d arrange his clothes by colour, transforming their drawers into thickset tiered rainbows. He remembers that one night after The Reliance he’d cracked her across the jaw for asking where he’d been.
Andy watched on from the corner, short-stack, eight years old and screaming “Stop fighting! Stop fighting, please!”
“Mum and Dad aren’t fighting,” Diane said quietly. Looking down at her weak wrists and trembling frame he’d realised she was right. It was no fight. He drinks to forget the sound she made when she hit the ground.
“Just say you’re sorry,” says Andy.
He ignores him. “Not bad though,” he says. “Just like I taught you. Low jaw punch, twist in the waist, keep it tight and bam. Release.”
Andy grips his bottle between his hands as if to warm them. “You never taught me anything,” he says. “I never learned anything from you.”
What a joke. Moved, he bends towards his son and laughs. “Where do you get it from then?”
Andy smashes the bottle against the side of the table and lurches towards his chest. Just in time he dodges into Diane’s arms where she holds him for a moment in surprised disgust as much as tenderness. He wants to tell her so many things. He wants to tell her last night he pissed a bed she wasn’t in. He wants to tell her the other men in The Reliance would have hurt her in exactly the same way. Each and every one, he’d bet. What a joke; we had a laugh, didn’t we? He starts to giggle as tears slip down his face and he falls to the ground unaided this time by Andy’s fist and as he stares up between the circle of heads and the light around them he opens his mouth and says both what they want to hear and not: “I’m sorry. I never meant a word of it. I never meant a word.”