Fiction

Short Story: Passing Ships

Another competition entry that failed to make the grade, although to be fair, it was an adapted piece of text. I ran out of time and so I nicked a few paragraphs from one of the novel-in-progress’ chapters. That said, it still stands up structurally, just about. But you can tell that it wasn’t designed primarily as a short story. The arc is far from perfect, and what was a curious snapshot in the context of wider writing doesn’t really stand up under its own weight. Word limit was two grand for this one, and I managed to hit it exactly, which provokes some small sense of satisfaction, however minute and pointless.

However, through the process of breaking this scene down, giving it the focus it deserves, it’s become better. A word limit led to a trimming spree that saw me axe one of my favourite paragraphs but then darlings are so often the first things to go when it comes to a literary cull. And it was The paragraph in question was overblown and gloriously bloated and stuffed with far too many John Cusack movie references. 

*

My alarm goes off at 6:45 on Friday morning, and I rise like the dead, a zombified groan the first thing to pass my lips. The body jerks slowly into the auto-pilot of routine – pants, socks, shirt, trousers, tie, toast, tea, teeth, shoes, jacket, keys, done. I realise at the station that I’ve forgotten my Oyster card, my wallet is empty, and all of the machines have ‘CASH ONLY’ scrawled across their fronts.

All I have to do is make it to 7pm.

*

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Sally asks me during a little afternoon interlude, breaking my staring competition with the clock on the wall.

“But…I am grown-up!” I reply a little too hastily.

She smiles a sad little smile back at me, cocks her head to one side and makes what I can only describe as a mild clucking sound.

“No, silly, I mean…”she pauses, “you can’t see yourself looking after us lot forever can you?”

I think that’s the problem, you know. The problem is that’s exactly what I can see myself doing for years on end, until Father Time packs up his hourglass and finally snuffs it, I will be here, in this pokey office in Southwark, overseeing a bunch of failed actors trying to wheedle money out of retirees for tiny theatres in Scotland and school Nativity funds.

This is where English degrees get you, after the government forces you to work in Poundland for no money, and you wind up stacking shelves and making pizzas in Morrison’s (I still miss Safeway) for six months, and you lose sight of exactly why you’re thousands of pounds in debt. Arts fundraising, the end of the line.

“Well I’ve always enjoyed singing,” I mumble. This is the worst thing to say in the company of opinionated, but ultimately unsuccessful, thespians. Suddenly the office’s kitchen is roused from its torpor and the verbal showreels begin. It transpires that Hugh almost landed an Aviva advert, that Rita used to sing deliberately badly (yeah right) as part of her Jewish mother act, that Sally was part of a theatre collective, and Maxine meets each new revelation with a swift little biting aside. I start inching towards the door, but then Kath calls her out, and it becomes apparent that no-one’s getting out of this one alive.

“Have you done any singing, Maxine?” Kath asks pointedly.
“Oh Maxine’s probably done loads of singing, haven’t you Maxine?” chirps Sally.
“Oh I don’t like to kiss and tell,” said Maxine. Rita rolls her eyes dramatically.
“Alright everyone, back to work,” I say half-heartedly, making sweeping motions towards the door. I can feel the will to live seeping out through my own pores.
“You haven’t, though, have you Maxine?” challenges Kath.
“I don’t believe that it’s any business of yours,” comes the curt reply.
“You preach and you preach as if you’re an expert, but you’re no better than the rest of us really, are you?”
“Ladies…” Tony starts to stand up, arms half-extended in a mildly placatory fashion but he gets shot such a look of venom from Maxine that he evidently thinks better of it and sidles out of the room instead. He’s not alone. The air becomes chillier. I’m too fucking tired for this.
“You had that audition last week didn’t you Maxine?” asks Rita. “What was that for?”
“Well there was that German light opera tour…” Maxine begins.
“No it wasn’t that,” says Rita.
“Well I think we should be getting back to work now,’ I say with a little more vigour in my voice. Still nothing.
“…and a play at the Bush…”
“Oh I saw that one,” chimes in Patricia.
“So did I,” says Kath, a bit scornfully. “It was fifth-rate in-yer-face garbage that ended with someone sodomising a stuffed elephant.”
“Oh my!” says Sally.
“Sounds about right,” I mutter to no-one in particular.
“Thrush cream!” exclaims Rita suddenly. “That was it!”
“It was very well reviewed in some quarters.”
“They shut it down after five nights,’”says Kath. “It was supposed to run for four weeks.”
“I don’t have to sit here and take this,” growls Maxine, storming out. She pauses in front of me and waves her timesheet in my face. “You can stuff this up your arse!” she says, before ripping it up and dropping it into the bin. Moments later the office door slams shut.

“Thanks for that Kath.”

“Truth hurts sometimes, dearie,” Kath replies. “She needed someone to stand up to her.” Sally is staring at her with a look of disappointment. “What? She deserved it.” Kath turns to me again. “Have I got time for a cheeky fag?”
“No. All of you back to the grindstone!’ I say in a mildly raised voice.

I stuff four sticks of Nicorette gum into my face and slope back to my call data entry. I glance at my phone, two missed calls and three texts from James instructing me to make my way into Central when we’re done. Apparently he has a plan. He proclaims that the weekend is here, that we have a duty as twentysomethings to go out and get utterly trolleyed and that by fulfilling this remit and spending copious amounts on highly taxed alcohol and cigarettes we are in fact being patriots. Smiley face.

I resolve to pick up some Resolve for the morning and knuckle down for another two hours.

*

Ah, to be young and single. Friday is but another crossed-off square on a depressingly empty calendar and all attention turns to the weekend. London transforms into a mess of energised, scurrying folk, desperate to fill their allotted two days of freedom with as much as they possibly can. The Tube stations surround themselves with a fog of nicotine and tar as the working week comes to an end, to be later replaced by the sharp tang of cheap perfume, entire cans of Lynx, and the unmistakeable aroma of fresh vomit.

Across the country, in mucky toilet stalls and battered, comatose cars, young people are falling in love. We don’t need names any more, and I’ve already forgotten hers. We are predators, sirens and cattle. We are human flasks of cosmic force. She looks up at me with heavy-lidded eyes, dressed in fake lashes and sleeping on a pillow of mascara, and I can tell that it’s no longer the rum but more the coke that’s setting her mind alight. Love potions come in powder form for me now.

I can feel the thumping bass from the dancefloor reverberating through the walls. I can hear the suicidal buzzing of a deranged fly as it tries desperately to taste the nirvana that the toilet’s strip light seems to promise. I’m vaguely aware that two doors down an unfortunate customer is taking a short break from being violently ill. My sherbet-free nostrils are complaining. I should be losing myself in this moment; she’s pretty skilled after all. Dedicated, one might say. I put my hand on her head and guide her down harder and further thinking that maybe some interaction will cure me of this apathy.

This is it. The weekend in all of its strobe-flecked, mini-skirted glory. This is living, as a PlayStation billboard might put it. Drowning the memories of the working week in a maelstrom of beer, tequila, cigarettes and blurry semi-naked fumbling. I curse James in my head for bringing me here and call him every ugly name under the sun.

“You owe it to yourself to go out on a Friday night, hit a bar or a club and get utterly smashed,” I recall him saying earlier. “When you’re old and shackled, with a pension plan and a wife with boobs round her knees, you’ll want to look back on your twenties and reminisce. You’ll want to remember the bright lights, the gorgeous women and the crazy nights we had, and how the hell is that ever going to happen if all you want to do is sit indoors, play Halo, watch overpriced pay-per-view porn and fiddle with yourself?”

I mildly made the point that you don’t need to pay for porn these days thanks to the internet. He hit me with several empty beer cans and locked the TV remote in his room.

So it is after a few preliminary pints at Porterhouse that we end up here, in a club with a spacious dancefloor transformed into a single writhing mass and a smaller chillout area with some couches and a few booths. It isn’t long before James identifies a group of four girls celebrating someone’s birthday and clearly out for a good time, whatever that means. They’ve already nabbed a table and a couple of rounds of shots are all it takes to get them to welcome us into their circle with open arms. A few more and the birthday girl is sat on James’ lap and one of her friends – Polly? Kelly?….maybe Holly? – is doing her very best to rub me off through my trousers. One not so subtle change of locale, a party sniff or two for her, and here I am, having sex in a dirty toilet cubicle with a girl whose name I can’t for the life of me remember.

It doesn’t last long. I start feeling bad after only a few seconds. This is someone’s daughter, after all. Somewhere, there’s a family home with pictures of a much younger…Laura? Rachel?…maybe perched on her father’s knee, or being pushed on the swings at the park, or holding hands with a childhood sweetheart in matching outfits that the mothers concerned have conspired to purchase together. Do they know that their daughter…Mandy? Katy? Chrissy?…has sex in club toilets with strange men? Would they want to? Is she broken? Was there a family tragedy? Is she an orphan? Did her father leave her mother for a younger woman? Did her mother leave her father for another man? Or woman? Is there a broken home? Is there a history of abuse? Am I part of the problem? Is this a revenge fuck? Is this sexual healing? Does it matter? Should I care? Now I have that Marvin Gaye song stuck in my head. I hate my brain sometimes.

She has her legs wrapped around me now, up against the door, head thrown back, eyes shut, pulling me inside of her. But I still can’t concentrate. I can feel myself losing it. It’s not that she’s unattractive, far from it (though I’m eight pints and five shots in, so to be honest it’s anyone’s guess), I just realise halfway through that this is the last place on earth that I want to be right now. I feel numb to the whole thing, sterilised by not only the alcohol, but by something else too.

I’ve never really been this guy, that’s the problem. I’m a massive fraud. As a teenager I spent all of my time writing songs on my acoustic guitar, idolising Shakespeare’s words and Clapton’s hands and Buckley’s voice (both father and son). I don’t pick up strangers in clubs and then have sex with them.

She shudders, there are a handful of slight, breathless gasps and, at least having done my part, I decide to fake an orgasm (I’m wrapped in rubber, she’ll never know) and end this uncomfortable tryst. As she’s readjusting her skirt afterwards the most I can muster is a limp ‘thanks’ and we shake hands (of all things!) before heading our separate ways.

*

My body clock wakes me up before seven on Saturday morning, and there are five texts on my phone from James asking me where I got to, and instructing me that we’ll be doing it all again tonight.

I wonder if my great-grandparents know that they died for this.