BY LEON COLEMAN
Copyright is held by the author.
TOM STARES into his pint glass at tiny bubbles that escape to the top.
“So, tell me, Tommy, are you sure? You know what you’re like?” says Patrick in his south Dublin accent.
“Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve had it — enough is enough.” Tom’s face is solemn. His sunken brown eyes and hollow cheeks are set in a pale face; his thick eyebrows inching together like kissing caterpillars. He listens intently to his friend.
“So, what you going to do?”
“I don’t know, I feel like I’m trapped and I can’t get out.”
“How long have you two been together now?” Patrick’s chubby cheeks give him the appearance of someone who works outdoors, probably on a farm. Actually, he’s just back from the rigs.
“Oh, eight years, I think.”
“Eight years. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you need a good kick up the arse.” Patrick raises his Guinness and takes a sip. “What are you playing at? You’re still a young man, there’s a lot of action for you out there, if you want it that is.” Patrick’s small upturned nose twitches. Eventually he rubs his nose with his palm, which he wipes on his jeans. “You know your problem, Tommy? You got no get up and go.”
Tommy hates criticism and he hates it most when it came from his best friend. Patrick had got a girl pregnant when he was sixteen but had managed to start a new life. And now he seems to have it all. He earns good money, owns a house and he’s been active too, having travelled the world he always has the stories to tell. Lucky sod. Tommy sees himself as always in shadows, while Patrick’s face attracts light, his blue eyes sparkling like sapphires.
“All she seems to care about is the bloody cat. She’s more interested in it than she is in me, anyway. Every morning she lets it in, now she’s on about installing a cat flap. It’s not even her cat, it’s her neighbour’s.”
“Oh, come on, Tommy, it’s only a cat, what harm can the poor tabby do ya?” says Patrick.
“What harm? I’m bloody allergic.” Tommy sits bolt upright. “That fuzz ball leaves it hairs all over the place. I swear it has alopecia.”
They both pause, as they raise their glasses in unison. Tommy tries to keep up with Patrick who, despite only ever appearing to sip his beer, always finishes first.
“Another one, Patrick?”
Patrick holds his left index finger up as though checking the wind while he scrolls his phone messages. “Yeah. Why not? No giant thumb dangling over my head, now is there? I’m free as a bird.”
Tommy slips off his stool, like a child at the top part of a slide. He returns with two glasses, droplets of condensation running down the sides.
“So, what you gonna do, Tommy? You can’t go on like this. No offence, Tommy, but you look like shite. You gonna break it off?”
“I want to but I can’t,” Tommy says, noticeably vexed as his pupils dance around nervously.
“What do you mean ‘you can’t’? Don’t tell me she’s terminally ill or something.”
“She’s up the duff? Believe me, Tommy, that’s not a prob.”
“No, she’s not pregnant.”
“Well. What is it then?”
“I can’t dump girls.”
“I’ve never done it. And besides, I’m not going to start over a bloody cat.”
Patrick begins to chuckle, his shoulders shaking as though he’s sitting on a rickety old washing machine, tilting one way then the other, like a skittle that can’t make up its mind whether to fall over or not.
“Well, I can tell you, Tommy, it’s not as bad as you think. I can talk you through it, the whole process, the beginning, the middle, the end. And the bit after.” Patrick opens the crisps. “I’ve learned a thing or two over the years.” He puts one in his mouth, then adds proudly, ‘especially with the lasses.’
“Sure, you can —”
“No, seriously, Patrick, I can’t. What’s more, on Monday we’re going away together for a holiday, for two bloody weeks.”
“Lovely place it is.” Patrick says. “Lived all over Spain, know it like the back of my hand, very nice.”
Tommy glares. “I’ve got a major dilemma here. I thought you might be able to help me out.”
Patrick stares at the beams above, as though working something out.
“Look Tommy, are you sure you’re made for the bachelor life? I mean, you don’t have it so bad. You know what they say? Grass is always greener on the outside.”
“Other side of the fence.”
“Yeah, there as well.”
“Well, it definitely is in my case.”
“Are you sure? That it’s that bad, I mean?”
“Well, Tommy boy, aren’t you lucky you’ve old Patrick looking out for you, then.”
“Sure, you are. I’ve got the solution.”
“Tell me.” Tommy’s tiny eyes widen. He waits as Patrick takes another infuriating sip.
“There’s a downside though. If you go down this road there’s no turning back.”
“I’m up for it. What is it?”
“Just leave it to me. You’ll see when you get back. But I’m going to need a favour in return.”
“What is it?”
“Can I stay in your pad while you’re away?”
“Why do you think? You know, Tommy, I sometimes worry about you.” Patrick has a cheeky grin on his face. ‘I’ve met this lass and I want to show her a good time. My place is off limits, as you know.’
“You promise not to smoke in the house? You know what Tracy’s like. She’ll go mad if she finds out I let you stay.”
“I promise.” Patrick crosses his heart.
“And don’t let that cat in. I’m sick of his hairs all over the sofa.”
Patrick grins. “What’s it like?”
“You mean the cat?”
“A little tomcat. Ginger. Mr Tiddles. I hate him.”
“So you said.”
Tommy thinks for a minute. Tracy will kill him. But he doesn’t care, does he? He’s getting out. “Okay, I’ll get you the spare key. And don’t forget the deal.”
“Have I ever let you down?”
It’s Monday and Tommy is standing outside McDonalds waiting for Tracy to arrive. He has his luggage in tow. He shuffles uncomfortably, checking the time on his phone every few minutes, no calls and no messages. It’s 14:30. She said she’d be here by 14:15. He checks again, 14:34, where the hell is she? His stomach rumbles, so he decides to get a Big Mac meal. The girl who serves him is called Mandy and has three stars. She flirts with him and giggles as his case topples over. He blushes, if the plan goes as expected he’ll be free to do as he likes soon. He takes a seat before sinking his teeth into his burger. He hears the screech of his name.
He looks up and sees Tracy.
“What are you doing?” she asks, she scoops her hair out of her face, her cheeks are flushed.
“Well, let me take a guess,” he says.
A vein throbs on her temple. Her jaw lowers revealing two bucked teeth; he used to love them, now he wants to knock them out. He feels his blood rise; the bun is stuck in his throat. An image of Patrick pops into his head, there’s a plan, a plan he doesn’t know, but he can rely on Patrick, and thanks to Patrick, he won’t need to put up with this much longer. “Well, I’m sorry, it wasn’t me that’s 20 minutes late now, is it?” he says.
She turns red, her eyes bulge. “I’ve come from work, I was stuck in traffic.”
“Yes. ‘Whatever’. Do you think I’m late on purpose?” She shakes her head. “Please Tommy, I don’t have the time for this, we need to go.”
“In a minute.”
“Tommy!” she says, in the tone his mother used to use.
He doesn’t move.
“We’re going to miss the train, we need to go . . .” She pauses. “Now!”
Begrudgingly he gets up with the consolation that he who laughs last, laughs loudest. Don’t they?
They catch the train and check-in at the airport with five minutes to spare. On the plane she asks, “Did you do all the things I asked you?”
He huffs. She faces him while resting an elbow on the foldable tray, waiting for a response. He relents, “Yes,” he says with a large exhalation. Technically, the answer was no. But he had left the list with Patrick.
“You turned the cooker and fridge off?”
“Yes.” Hearing his own voice, he sounds like a petulant teenager, though he is quickly distracted by the blonde stewardess with her high heels and tight skirt making her way up the aisle.
“Alarm turned on?”
“Closed all the windows?”
“Let the cat out?”
“Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . .”
“Poor Mr Tiddles. I hope he doesn’t miss us too much.”
After landing at Palma de Mallorca Airport they head to the hotel, drop off their luggage and hit the bars. By the third day Tommy’s noticing that as they walk along the beach men turn to catch a glimpse of Tracy. He has to admit, that with the sun tan and bikini she looks pretty hot. They stroll along the harbour at sunset and in the evening they go for meals in trendy restaurants. On their final night in Palma they go out for a candlelit dinner at an Italian restaurant.
“I really needed this,” she says.
“Yeah, me too,” he says.
She fidgets with the stem of her glass, “I’m sorry, I know I haven’t been particularly easy to get on with recently, work’s been crazy.”
“Yeah, whatever. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine Tommy. I feel that we’ve drifted apart. I mean, we even argue over next door’s cat!”
“I’m allergic —”
“Look, I’ll make sure he doesn’t sit on the sofa, okay.”
He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, looking around to see if anyone can hear. He stabs his salad with his double pronged fork, and looks at her, the bright blue eyes, and the tanned cleavage. Her face radiates, is it blusher or just the sun on her cheeks? Throughout their meal he’s been assessing the other women at the tables around, and now back at Tracy. She might be the hottest girl in here, he thinks, well, apart from that blonde on the right. No hairs on the sofa, he could cope with that. Maybe he’ll tell Patrick to forget about the plan, whatever the plan is. He’ll do it face to face, like a man, over a beer, or two.
In the cab, returning home from the airport, he takes her hand. It was a good holiday. Maybe the solitary life, the life of the bachelor, as Patrick called it, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Domesticity has its advantages. Shirts get washed and ironed, supper prepared most evenings. Marriage? Not yet. After all, engagement rings don’t come cheap, do they?
The cab pulls up outside their home. Bronzed and radiant, they smile contentedly, still hand in hand, like a new couple.
He hands over a £20 note to the driver. “Keep the change mate,” he says.
Tracy steps out. “Good to be home,” she says as she pulls out her jangling keys to unlock the front door.
He follows, watching her figure from behind. He lights up a cigarette, blowing out smoke into the warm muggy air. Is this what it’s like to be a grown up? There’s a flash of white in the sky, followed by a gentle rumble. He stubs the cigarette out and makes his way to the kitchen leaving his luggage in the hall. The house looks fine; no sign of Patrick. No sign of anything, in fact, so why does he feel uneasy? He wrinkles his nose.
Tracy does too. “Can you smell something?”
He hopes Patrick remembered all the bins. He pours himself a glass of water, while Tracy goes to check the house.
Hairs stand up on his neck. Then —
“Tommy!” She screams from the front room.
“Yes?” Has Patrick smoked in the house despite his promise? Tommy gazes out onto the street. Kids are playing football, they shout at each other to pass the ball. The ball comes over into their hedge and a cat scuttles out.
It’s not Mr Tiddles.
Slowly he makes his way to the front room. From the doorway he sees Tracy crouching over something, her cheeks stained with tears, her eyes burning with hatred.
He steps back from her, from the furry, stinking mass in front of her.
“Oh shit!” he whispers under his breath.