Mr Seb CC
Lisa’s sitting on the park bench, facing the pond, holding a can of Diet Coke and a doughnut from Greggs. At the opposite end of the bench is an older man who she doesn’t know. The only thing they have in common is their gingerish hair, though Lisa’s is scraped back into a ponytail, so looks darker.
She’s wearing old jeans and a baggy top she borrowed from her mum. It says: I’M OUTTA YOUR LEAGUE in white letters across the chest. The man is wearing a thick fleece, its collars pointing upwards, despite the late-Spring sunshine.
“Why’re you wearing that?” asks Lisa, without looking around. Her forehead is creased, and she’s staring at algae on the pond as if it’s a puzzle to solve, a Maths equation at college.
“Because I’m cold,” says the man in the fleece. He isn’t staring at anything. He’s just concentrating on breathing: in-out-in-out.
“Yeah, you probably are,” says Lisa. She lifts the doughnut to her mouth and takes a big bite. As she chews, some of the jam oozes onto her lower lip. With her right index finger, she swipes it off, then holds it up to Fleece Man.
“Wanna lick that?” she asks.
“No. I mean, not here,” he says.
“Embarrassed, are you?”
“Of course I am,” he says. “Anyone could see us.”
“Ashamed of me, are you?”
“No. I mean, yes. Not of you – but of, well, us.”
Lisa stares at him, as if he were algae. “Us? Mate, it’s just you and me, separate, like. This ain’t no us thing, y’know.”
“Okay, okay,” he says, under his breath. “Don’t be so loud.”
“Don’t you ‘okay-okay’ me,” she says. “I can be as FUCKING LOUD as I FUCKING want.” A few ducks on the pond fly off. “I’m not doing nothing wrong. I’m just sitting on a bench, like, eating my FUCKING DOUGHNUT.”
“Why are you being so … unfriendly? So impolite?” he asks, frowning at the pond, reminding himself that he’s the older person, the one in charge. “I’m the customer, after all.”
“This isn’t John fucking Lewis, y’know,” she hisses at him. “Take it or leave it. I’m not gonna pretend to be anything I’m not. You want some older slag who pretends to like you, all lovely-dovey-girlfriend-experience-shit, you fuck off elsewhere. There’s plenty of them out there.”
Lisa brushes the sugar off her skirt, and starts to get up. He reaches over, touches her elbow. She glares down at his hand. He pulls away. “No, no, it’s okay. It’s fine. You’re … perfect.”
She sits back down, almost smiles for the first time. “Well, that’s certainly not true. I’m a shit. But I can help you blow your nuts, if that’s what you want.”
He nods. He’s all hunched over now, cowed. Good, she thinks. They’re easier to deal with like that. She takes a swig of Coke.
“Where are we going to go, then?” he asks, quietly.
She spits the Coke out. “Y’what? For fuck’s sake, mate, you should know that, not me. It’s your outcall.”
She glances at him. He looks like he’s about to cry. She can’t be doing with that – hates that kind of thing. “Haven’t you done this before? Don’t you get what it says on the website? You’re meant to arrange a place to do it, not me. God, it’s not as if we can go to mine. My mum’d kill me.” She pauses. “Or she would if she weren’t shit-faced.”
Fleece Man doesn’t say anything. He’s obviously mulling things over.
“Look,” she says. “I could give you a quick toss-off round the back of the caff, if we’re careful. Only charge you half.”
“It’s all right,” says the man. “My wife’s out. We can go to mine. Just for a bit.”
“That’s more like it,” she says. “Now we’re getting somewhere. How far away is it?”
“About ten minutes from here.”
Lisa stands up, and so does he, more slowly. She chucks the Coke can into a bush. “Just remember I’m charging you for the extra time. Sitting-on-bench time. Walking time.”
He doesn’t hear this, and instead mumbles something she doesn’t catch.
“What I said is – would you mind walking behind me a few steps? So people don’t think we’re together.”
She grabs his hand, and presses it to her chest: “Oh, darling,” she declaims in a high-pitched voice, “darling, how can you ask something like that of me? How can you disown me, after all we’ve been through?”
He pulls his hand away: “Shhh …”
“Oh, stop being such a wuss,” she says. “There’s no-one round apart from the fucking ducks. D’you think they’re bugged or summit?”
“But the neighbours …”
“Mate, whatever. If you want me to walk behind you, pretend I don’t know you – which I don’t – then, yeah, that’s fine. Long as I get paid. Lead the way, darling.”
He’s about to turn away and start walking. But then she clears her throat, and her eyes narrow on him: “Ahem, like.”
“What?” he asks. “What’s wrong? Don’t you want to come with me now?”
“Yeah. But I think you’ve forgotten summit.”
“I want payment – least some payment – up front. It’s, like, standard practice. Read the website.”
He sighs, and reaches inside his fleece. He brings out a fat leather wallet, and takes out two twenty-pound notes. She watches carefully, peering inside the wallet, almost on tiptoes: there are a lot more notes in there.
He glances round, hands her the two twenties. She snatches them and shoves them deep into one of her jeans pockets. She nods: “Okay, let’s go.”
He moves off, at quite a pace. He has long legs, and is much taller than her.
He strides round the pond, past the war memorial and diagonally across the picnic area. She strolls after him, knowing he’ll have to slow down at some point unless he wants to lose her.
They pass boys playing football, some pensioners doing Tai Chi, a couple snogging, and a group of girls, sitting in a circle, blatantly smoking weed. She can smell it a mile off. She recognises the girls from college, but looks dead ahead, hoping they haven’t seen her. One of them she used to quite like, from afar. The two of them had swapped hellos and numbers once, but never called or texted each other. As for the others, she knows what they think of her – if they think of her at all. She knows they wouldn’t speak to a skank like her, let alone ask her to join them, share their spliff.
So she might as well carry on, following Fleece Man.
She follows him out of the park, past the library, across a couple of terraced streets, down a deserted jitty called – she almost laughs when she sees the sign – True Lovers’ Walk. Halfway along the jitty, he turns – the one and only time he does so during the whole walk – to check she’s still following. She scowls at him, sticks out her tongue, flips him the bird. He turns away and carries on walking. “Remember all this walking time is on the meter,” she calls to his back. “I’m knackered already, and we haven’t done nothing yet.”
Fleece Man doesn’t respond. “Fuck’s sake,” she huffs, to herself this time.
As they carry on walking – past a playground, onto the college road – she finds herself humming something, a dismembered tune which keeps going round and round her head. She gets this kind of thing sometimes, a stupid tune which won’t go away, trapped up there – like a fly or wasp, banging against the sides, trying to get out. For a while, she wonders what it is, hearing and humming it without recognising it. Then she remembers: it’s bloody Teddy Bear’s Picnic – in the fragmented, off-key, slightly-manic version that the ice cream van used to play, when she and her mother lived at their old flat.
At six o’clock their mummies and daddies …
“Fuck’s sake,” she hisses to the tune: “Shurrup.” She can feel a headache coming on.
They’re walking past the college now – the college she should be at today, but isn’t. She keeps her head down, speeds up a bit; though no-one seems to notice her anyway. No-one ever seems to notice her. Sometimes, she feels invisible.
They cross the dual carriageway, and take a left onto the main road out of town – and then a right and right again, into a little close she didn’t know existed.
By the time she’s at the top of the close, he’s disappeared into one of the houses. He’s left the front door open for her to follow. She does so, and kicks it shut behind her.
He’s in front of her, in the hallway, hanging his fleece on the end of the banister, slipping off his shoes. He wanders into the living room.
“Are you gonna say something – y’know, like ‘Welcome to my humble abode’ – or you gonna give me the silent treatment like forever?” she asks after him. “No manners, some people.” She kicks her trainers off, wipes her nose on the sleeve of his fleece, and follows him into the front room. He’s closing the curtains as she enters.
“Is this when you turn out to be a psycho and cut me up into little pieces?” she asks.
“No,” he says.
They both sit on the sofa at opposite ends. The sofa’s smaller than the bench in the park, though, so they’re closer now. Sitting at an angle, Lisa lets her knee touch his. He doesn’t seem to notice. He’s hunched over, staring at the carpet.
“You must be fucking loaded,” she says, looking round at the TV, the furniture, the mantelpiece, “to have all this shit.”
“It’s just a normal house,” he says. He repeats himself, his own echo: “It’s just a normal house” – and it sounds like he’s going to cry.
“It’s true. It’s a normal house, with normal stuff and a normal couple, who don’t have sex because the wife’s always at work while the husband’s on his own, most afternoons, most evenings, most …”
“Oh, shurrup.” Lisa moves her knee away from his. This trick’s turning out a right pain in the arse, she thinks: a bastard of a headache, and a first-timer who doesn’t understand the deal. If there’s one thing she can’t stand it’s punters – and anyone else for that matter – crying. She has to deal with enough of that from her mum. “Fuck’s sake,” she snaps at him. “Let’s get this straight. I don’t wanna hear any of that ‘My wife doesn’t understand me’ bollocks. Do I look like I care? I’m not gonna feel sorry for you for forty quid an hour. I’m not your fucking counsellor, and this ain’t no GFE. Don’t you get it? – this is a ‘purely financial arrangement,’ like it says on the website. I couldn’t care less if you died, mate, long as I get paid.”
She breathes in and out, calms herself down. “Okay, okay, bit harsh. But let’s get on with it, for fuck’s sake. Other hoes wouldn’t be so patient, y’know.”
“I’m sorry,” he says to the carpet. “I do get it. I do understand.”
“Forget about it.” There’s a pause. She sits up, composes herself, moves her ponytail over one shoulder. Then she looks at him from under her lashes, speaks more gently, rests her hand on his thigh. “Okay, then. What d’you wanna do?”
He doesn’t respond. His eyes widen slightly – but otherwise, nothing.
Her tone is soft now – or as soft as she can make it: “If it’s, like, something different, I don’t mind. Just tell me what it is. You’re paying for it.”
He still doesn’t respond, and she starts wriggling, starts getting agitated again. She can’t stand the silence. She talks over it, tries to fill it, before Teddy Bear’s Picnic comes back: “Look, mate. You can’t shock me. All I can say to you is no, fuck off, or yes, okay, we’ll try it. I’ve heard it all before. I know what men are like. I mean, fuck, my own dad’s a dirty bastard. You should see the porn he’s got on his old laptop. Fucks off for weeks at a time with smack-heads and prossies. Then comes crawling home to us on his hands and knees, wanting me and my mum to say, ‘Yeah, welcome back’ – wanting us to like him. As if.”
You better be in disguise …
Her head’s ringing. She stops herself, feels like she’s said too much – feels like she always says too much, can’t keep her mouth shut, that’s what they used to say at school. They didn’t understand she wasn’t deliberately talking over the teacher – rather, she was talking over her own head, the noise going on in there.
She breathes in, smooths out her tone once more: “Y’know, if you want, I can suck my thumb and call you daddy, if that’s the kind of shit you’re into.”
He stands up. The movement’s so sudden, she flinches.
He doesn’t notice, and offers her something to drink: “We’ve got Bacardi, gin, whisky, lager – whatever you want.”
“You offering booze to minors, like?”
“I’m joshing you, mate. Can I have a tea?”
He frowns: “Tea?”
“Yeah, tea. Even low-lifes like me like tea, y’know.” She thinks of her mother at home – probably on the bed now, sweating vodka. “It’s the only thing I drink. Skimmed milk, one sugar.”
Fleece Man turns, steps over to what is presumably the kitchen door, and disappears inside. Lisa can hear him clattering about the kitchen, filling the kettle, opening and closing cupboards.
She stands up, and wanders round the living room, checking things out. There’s a crystal vase with plastic flowers in it, on a small table next to the window. She picks it up and examines it carefully, like the old gits on Antiques Roadshow. It’s pretty and rainbowy, but she’s stupidly come without big pockets to hide anything in. Honest by mistake, she thinks. She puts the vase back down and steps over to the mantelpiece. There, she runs her fingers over various knick-knacks, vases, dolls, until she lights on a photo frame. She picks it up, and stares at the photo inside.
She hears him behind her, coming back into the living room. “This the wife, then?” she asks. “Don’t look like a bitch.”
“That was sixteen years ago.”
“And who’s the little kid next to her? Never said you had a daughter.”
“I don’t. We don’t. She died.”
Lisa puts the picture down quickly, as if it’s infected with something. She rubs her hands on her top and turns to look at him.
“Sixteen years ago,” he says.
“Soz,” she says, automatically. Then: “Fuck, that means she’d have been almost the same age as ...” She trails off.
He’s standing, frozen, a couple of yards in front of her, holding a mug of tea. He’s staring at her – for the first time since meeting, he doesn’t look away – and she’s staring back at him.
Watch them, catch them unawares ...
Sometimes, she’s overcome by a strange feeling she might stare at something with such intensity, it might move, even explode. Sometimes, she feels terrified by the power of her own gaze, her own thoughts – as if her headaches might kill. Now, face to face with Fleece Man, she feels, for a moment, that her gaze might shatter him, cause him to disintegrate into a thousand shards, glass-like tears.
The moment passes, and instead of shattering, he mumbles to her: “I’m going upstairs. I need the toilet. Perhaps a shower, before ... Give me a few minutes. I’ll call you up when I’m ready.” His voice wobbles a bit. “Here’s your tea.”
He shoves the mug into her hands, and almost runs out of the room. She hears him pounding up the stairs.
She sits down on the sofa, sips the tea. She rubs her head. The headache’s getting worse.
And wonderful games to play …
Oh, shurrup, shurrup, shurrup, she says to her own head. For fuck’s sake, shurrup. What a dumbass tune to get stuck in there.
She stands up, wanders about, sits back down. Looks at her watch. For fuck’s sake, how long’s he going to be, she wonders. Let’s hope bitch-wife doesn’t come back early. She’ll get a shock.
Lisa looks up at the ceiling: she can hear footsteps, shuffling, something heavy being moved. She glances at her watch again. He still doesn’t call her up. Fuck’s sake.
She taps her fingers, sips more tea. For fuck’s sake.
She gives it another few minutes. For fucketty fuck’s sake.
Upstairs, there’s a thud, a strange creaking noise, something breaking. That’s it, she thinks, I’ve had enough. She finishes the tea, puts the mug on the mantelpiece in front of the photo, and steps out of the living room. At the bottom of the stairs, she calls up: “Hey! You ready yet? I can’t hang round all fucking day, y’know.”
There’s no answer. She waits a few seconds, then starts tiptoeing upstairs – wondering why the hell she’s tiptoeing. She can’t hear any movement, any more noises from upstairs. And the quieter things are on the outside, the louder they seem on the inside: with each step, the Teddy Bear’s Picnic in her head gets louder – until, on the landing, she can hardly believe it’s not real, that the ice cream van isn’t right in front of her. She feels faint, has to steady herself by holding onto the wall for a few seconds.
At six o’clock their mummies and daddies …
The bathroom door, at the top of the stairs, is ajar and the room is empty. In one corner, the shower is drip-dripping onto the tiles.
She turns to her right. The next door is shut. She shoves it open, and it rubs against the carpet below with a whooshing noise, as though the carpet were overgrown. The room inside is a mess: ripped cardboard boxes, photos scattered, trodden on, dusty box files, falling-down shelves, the skeletal remains of broken chairs – and, in the corner, half-buried underneath a box of Law textbooks – are the caged sides of a cot, dismantled.
She pulls the door to, and steps over to the next one. From inside, she can hear a noise she can’t quite pinpoint – somewhere between rocking, whining. It’s hard to make it out through the headache-din of Teddy Bear’s Picnic, which has got stuck on:
They never have any cares
They never have any cares
They never have any cares …
The door is slightly open, but she peers instead through the crack on the other side, between door-frame and door: she can see sunlight, dust motes, a double bed … and then something which silences – just like that – the ice cream van in her head, makes her turn away, brings up bile into her throat.
Her head suddenly clear, quiet, Lisa wants to be out of here. She wants to be back home – leaving him, this whole mess, to his wife. It doesn’t matter if home means holding her mum’s ponytail back while she throws up. It doesn’t matter if it means washing out smelly glasses, throwing empty bottles into the recycling, mopping the floor where her mum’s pissed herself. She’ll sit her mum down on the sofa, make them both a cup of tea, milk and one sugar, and eat ice cream – she can afford it tonight – and watch some shitty horror on TV. Together.
She wants to be doing that now. She wants to be at home. She wants to be at home before her dad decides to turn up again.
First, though, she shoves the bedroom door fully open, and steps inside. He’s lying on the double bed, crying, rocking backwards and forwards. There’s a little blood, and he’s surrounded by bits of shattered light fitting. In one hand, he’s still grasping the belt with which, a few minutes before, he half-heartedly tried to hang himself.
Lisa steps over to him, prises his fingers apart, and takes the belt. He looks up at her, as if he doesn’t recognise her through the tears. “What are you going … to do?” he asks, catching his breath between sobs.
“Shurrup,” she says. “You’re pathetic.”
She swivels round, steps over to the window, and opens it, dropping the belt onto the lawn below. He watches her, wide-eyed, uncomprehending, from the bed.
“Thank you,” he says, though neither he nor she knows what he’s thanking her for.
“Fuck you,” she says, and leaves the room – leaves him to it.
She steps across the landing, and trip-traps back down the stairs, all of a sudden feeling strangely buoyant. At the bottom, she reaches inside the man’s fleece, which is still hanging on the banister, and fishes out his wallet. She takes five twenties out of it, and puts it back carefully. She doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t feel bad, because she knows what she’s going to do with the money. She’s going to use it to get the locks changed on their flat.
She lets herself out of Fleece Man’s front door, and closes it quietly behind her. Skipping down the driveway, she grins, and waves the fan of notes in the face of a passing neighbour. Then she tucks them into her jeans pocket, with the others he gave her earlier.
After the ice cream and the horror movie, she thinks she might text that girl in the park.
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, UK. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk, Twitter @crystalclearjt.
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