by Mark Dennis
‘Mr Gilmour, don’t push. Wait your turn like the rest of us.’
Typical, so much fuss over a little prod. She had scrunched up her nose too, so that her eyes were narrow slits. She was Marion, I think, or Marlene or some such tartish equivalent, but I preferred Fat Rat. I had nicknames for them all of course. We were waiting for our end of course certificates, and Taylor had asked us to form a queue.
Ignoring her, I maintained my concentration on calculating when I would be at the front of the queue. Nine to go. I imagined how Taylor would be with me. He’d have to be careful in front of all these people, I knew that. Perhaps, a whispered ‘Well done’ or a firm handshake that lingered just enough to pass an understanding.
Eight. There was much that had passed unsaid between us over the last three months. I could feel it. Seven. I noticed a faded poster on the library wall. Its corner flapped in a strong down-draught from the cracked skylight overhead. Self-exploration and discovery — A twelve-week life-coaching course by Taylor Houston.
Six. Five. It had attracted an odd collection of students, which I guess was to be expected. Women with a taste for cheap perfume, pinot grigio and saturated fats. Flatulent, baggy-arsed men who thought a catchy cliché could remove the odour of their intense sadness. Thank God for me. He couldn’t say that, but I could. Four. But he thought it, surely. Three.
I closed my eyes in preparation and thought of Taylor’s blond fringe, the way it flopped forward when he got animated in his lectures. He would sweep it back and often hold it in place until he finished his point. His tanned face was always set in a natural-looking smile, and he moved with an easy, casual elegance, like a well-rehearsed dancer stretching out, comfortable in his skin. Taylor would be pleased with that observation, I thought. I recorded it in my notebook and decided I would share it with him. There was so much I wanted to share with him and thank him for.
Two. Fat Rat was using every pathetic trick in her rodent vocabulary. I prodded. Taylor shook hands and passed her certificates over. I gripped the inside of my trouser pocket to keep my hand dry, aware that this would be the first time our hands might touch.
Fat Rat took her certificate and led Taylor to the other side of the room. They were laughing at something she had said that I couldn’t quite hear. Selfish bitch. He gave her a hug and rubbed her low back as they walked towards the library door. I picked up my certificate and waited. I noticed its border had faded towards the bottom.
‘Taylor,’ I said, projecting my voice across the room, ‘I think your printer is running out of ink.’ I felt my face flush as he approached. He reached out his hands to me. His arms looked so strong, so safe. I held out the certificate for his inspection and he took it from me. I had missed my handshake and regretted picking it up early.
‘Yeah I see, it’s all streaked. Sorry, my friend,’ he said, stroking me on the arm. ‘Look, If you’re bothered, I’ll drop one round later.’
‘Tonight?’ I said. ‘Yes...’ My dry lips stuck, trying to form the word ‘please’. The word ‘friend’ reverberated in my head and made me feel dizzy. I concentrated on not fainting. I had often wondered if Taylor would ever visit my flat. I imagined us drinking martinis and laughing about Fat Rat, learning to become closer friends.
‘OK, I’ll pop it in on my way out tonight. You’re in those flats on Stonehart Avenue, yeah?’
I could still feel the warmth through my shirt where he had touched me. I just stared right back at him.
‘Hey what’s with the Fifth Amendment? Don’t go all Tony “Big Man” Soprano on me now,’ said Taylor, faking an Italian accent, as he pretended to adjust an oversize invisible jacket. It was his favourite impression: Tony Soprano. I had bought a boxed DVD set of The Sopranos series shortly after he had told us. I watched the entire series, five times.
‘Capisci?’ said Taylor. He pushed the certificate into my hand, and I felt his fingers lightly flick over my palm.
Taylor’s wife, Holly, was standing in the doorway. She often arrived at the end of a teaching session to drive him home. I didn’t like her. She had a pinched face, as if she constantly smelt something rancid.
‘Taylor, would you like to go out for a drink?’ I shuffled my feet. ‘Perhaps this evening? I know an Italian place...’ I kept my gaze on the certificate in my hand. The words felt unreal. But I had said them as planned. I wanted to say them again and again, softly under my breath, so that Holly couldn’t hear them. Bitch.
‘Look at me, Chris,’ said Taylor.
I couldn’t. I imagined his smile had gone, and I started to feel my legs weaken.
‘Maybe just a drink when you pop over with the certificate?’ I wasn’t sure I had made myself loud enough for Taylor to hear. Holly walked over, her stiletto heels like the sound of a high-pitched metronome.
‘I’m out with Holly tonight, Chris.’
‘Hi ya,’ said Holly.
I looked up and saw her looking at my certificate, tilting her head to read it.
‘Hi ya, Chris Gilmour.’ She peered into her compact mirror, teetered on her heels, and took Taylor’s arm to steady herself. She adjusted her skin-tight leggings, pulling them up with one hand, so that every detail of her gusset was displayed. She reminded me of the whores on Delaware Road. Whore. That was her nickname.
‘What you guys talking about then?’
I had lost my chance. Bitch. Whore. ‘A stranger is a friend waiting for that first hello,’ Taylor would say at the end of each session. There it was, that word, ‘friend,’ again. He had said it too many times for it not to mean something to him. To us.
‘Not much love. Look, Chris’s certificate got all messed up,’ said Taylor. He placed an arm around Holly’s shoulder and squeezed her into his side. This caused her breasts to bulge out of her leopard-print top. ‘I’m going to drop another one round later.’
‘Ah, shame, you’ve all worked hard I ’spect, Mr—’ Holly tilted her head at the certificate again — ‘Gimmor.’ Holly opened her compact, and applied a powder puff to her cheeks, as if the effort of talking must have deranged features she had checked only two minutes before.
‘Gilmore. It’s Gilmore.’ If the course had taught me anything this was the moment I had to bring it together. I wasn’t just any guy on the course. How could she lump me in with Fat Rat and the rest? It was preposterous. I looked down at the certificate and remembered a quote from week nine: ‘Tomorrow is the day you enjoy what you did right today.’
‘So about the drink?’ I turned and stepped to Taylor’s other side. ‘Will you come?’
‘Like I said, Chris, not for now.’ He gripped Holly’s arm and led her to the door. As he opened the door, he turned to face me. ‘I’m sorry about the certificate. I’ll get it all sorted tonight, I promise,’ said Taylor.
‘Of course, received, understood and certificated.’ I held the certificate aloft, and gave it a little shake.
Holly laughed and tottered down the front steps. They were gone. I felt foolish, thinking this would be the time and place to put my plan of an evening out with Taylor into place. But he had said ‘not now’ and hadn’t said ‘no.’ Perhaps he was giving me clues, and I was too dumb to realise. I ran out to the foyer and saw them on the outside steps.
‘Taylor’ — I no longer knew how loud or soft my voice was — ‘please, a new certificate. You’ll drop it round? You promise?’
‘Sure man.’ He extended his thumb and index finger into a gun shape, and flicked his wrist. ‘Ciao for now. Keep to the plan, man.’
‘Number nine, Stonehart Mansions, top floor,’ I said.
He stooped and placed both arms around Holly’s waist and kissed her. He raised his hand, and while still kissing, gave me a thumb-up sign. She would need her compact again, I thought. He picked Holly up and threw her into the passenger seat of his Saab convertible. I remembered his hug of Fat Rat. He seemed so masterful around women. He could fool any of them.
I withdrew to the silence of the empty foyer and let my breathing return to a normal rate. I ran my fingers around the edge of the certificate and caressed the lettering of his name. I placed the certificate in my notebook and made an entry: ‘Ready to face life’s challenges, confirmed by Taylor Houston, (My friend).’
Of course, it wasn’t going to be an ending. We had bonded. Taylor knew this, even if Holly didn’t. I could see that it would be difficult for Taylor to talk freely in front of Holly and felt buoyed he had given me a thumbs-up. I hoped now I hadn’t been too pushy. She was the kind of woman who demanded attention, like a kitten, bristling with energy and excitement for shiny worthless baubles. She had no interest in the deeper issues that I knew Taylor would yearn to discuss. That was something I could do for him. It was becoming clearer to me. I was just what he needed. Tonight was my chance to prove it to him.
* * *
I looked around the flat and tried to see it with a new eye, the eye of an important guest. On the polished oak floor of the main room, a two-seater leather buttoned Chesterfield and mahogany penny-table took centre stage. The living area was open-plan with no dividing wall between the hallway and the main room. It had been considered very avant-garde twenty years ago, and I had seen no reason to change it since.
The floor timbers were old and creaked like a ship when the wind’s up. I employed the use of a cleaner from time to time, a Ukrainian girl. Her lack of English was useful in keeping conversation basic and functional. I was confident the toilet and bathroom would not attract any criticism from Taylor. The kitchen was clean, too. I seldom cooked.
The Ukrainian had placed a bowl of pot-pourri on the penny-table, which filled the room with a scent of lavender. I moved it into the bedroom, as tonight I would need the table for martinis. The bedroom was untidy. I never allowed her to clean it. I wondered now whether that was a mistake.
‘You look tired, Taylor. We’ve had too many martinis.’ I practiced the phrase into the small hallway mirror, imagining Taylor, tipsy, deliberating whether he should drive home. Yes, I could see that’s how the conversation might go and an offer to stay over could be a logical conclusion of the night’s events. I tidied the bedroom and then skipped into the kitchen to prepare the martinis.
I had taken the flat, and shipped the Chesterfield and penny-table from my father’s estate after his death. I opened a window to air the room of the lingering lavender smell, and placed my martini onto the penny-table and sank back into the Chesterfield. A bare light bulb swung from a yellowed cord above my head, and cast a bright-refracted pattern from the martini glass. It was mesmerising. Taylor and I would be sitting here soon talking, drinking... becoming friends.
I remembered my father entertaining friends. I would sneak down the stairs when I heard the deep mumbled voices of adult guests, and peer through the stair rods into the drawing room. I would catch a glimpse of him striding around larger than life, gin in hand, laughing with a debonair air that gave no clue to his occasional lapses of temper.
The same Chesterfield, centre stage in his drawing room, surrounded by wall-to-wall oak bookshelves brimming with books and papers. He looked so happy, so peaceful.
Mother never visited the drawing room. After she died, Father kept the drawing room door shut, and I never again heard the hubbub of excited adult voices. I never visited the drawing room again, either, after Father died. He was found dead, by my aunt. She told me he had slipped and hit his head, which had accounted for the amount of blood found on the arm of the Chesterfield. Some stains are never removed.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dennis