Credit: Matthew Brandt
“Paul? Time to get up now, Paul.”
She came into his room and he closed his eyes tightly, pretending to be asleep. He’d been awake for two hours already, thinking about things, but he didn’t want her to know that.
“Paul, time to get up now.”
He heard her put a cup of tea on his bedside cabinet. She sat on the side of his bed and his body rolled towards her, his head pressed against her flannel dressing gown. She stroked his hair with her cold fingers that smelt of hand cream.
He half opened his eyes and looked up at her.
“Morning, Mum,” he croaked.
She looked down at him, stroking his hair in circles. Her glasses were slipping off her nose. She wore them all the time now. She never used to wear them at all. Seeing her wear them made him feel sad.
“Breakfast is on the table.” She patted his shoulder and left the room.
He stared at the ceiling. He knew every dip, every swirl of that white paint. He used to stick glow-in-the-dark stars on it, and could still see little bits of blue-tac where they used to be. That was a long time ago.
“Paul! Breakfast!” he heard her call.
He put on the blue dressing gown that was hanging on the back of his door, and went downstairs, clutching his tea. His father was already at the table, wearing his usual uniform of cream trousers and v-neck jumper. He was hunched over a newspaper, and ignored Paul as he sat down.
“Morning,” Paul said.
He grunted, and said, “There’s 2.47 million of you now.”
“John,” his mother hissed, passing her son a box of Shreddies.
“Although, most of them will be ok, find themselves some sort of work. As long as they’re not out of the loop too long.” He raised his eyebrows and turned the page noisily.
They ate breakfast in silence. Paul tried to distract himself, piling sugar on his cereal and trying to eat each piece before it sank in the milk and died. He wasn’t very successful.
“You going out today?” his father asked.
Paul shook his head. “Jobcentre tomorrow.”
His father scraped back his chair. He put his plate by the sink. He left the room, then came back with a Stephen King novel. He took his cup of tea, unlocked the backdoor, and they watched him walk to the shed at the bottom of the garden.
His mother pursed her lips and did the washing up, whilst Paul attempted a crossword from the book they kept on the telephone table. He gave up after five minutes, and scribbled out all his wrong answers. She peeled off her marigolds. Her face was pink from the hot water.
“I haven’t told your dad, but guess who I saw in Asda yesterday?”
She perched on the chair next to him. “Sarah Jenkins!” Her eyes were wide with excitement.
He felt his body tense. He did not want to talk about Sarah Jenkins.
“She’s single, she divorced that horrible Darren last year. She’s still very attractive, Paul. And she asked about you.”
“What did she say? What did you say, Mum?”
“I said that you were well, and that you were single.”
“You told her I was single? Why did you say that? She’ll think you’re trying to set us up, for God’s sake.”
“Well, how are you supposed to get a girlfriend if I don’t give a few hints now and again?”
Paul sat there looking blank. He smiled at his mum apologetically and returned to his room. He found his jeans crumpled in the back of his wardrobe, and a clean t-shirt and jumper folded neatly in the pile at the bottom of his bed. He put them on and inspected himself in the mirror, tracing his fingers along the fine lines around his eyes and mouth. He combed his hair and put some wax on it, but put too much on and made it look greasy. He swore quietly, and wiped his hair with his dressing gown. He sat on his bed, found his mobile in his bedside cabinet, and started to write a text, his fingers big and clumsy. He rewrote it several times before he sent it. He found his keys and wallet and went downstairs.
His mum stood in the kitchen doorway, looking small and shrivelled in an oversized dressing gown. It was one of his dad’s old ones.
“Are you alright, Paul?”
She pushed her glasses up her nose. “Where are you going, Paul, love?”
“Tony’s,” he muttered and slammed the door behind him.
It was freezing outside. He walked quickly, feeling like an idiot for not wearing a coat. There was a traffic jam and Paul could feel the drivers watching him. He shoved his hands in his pockets. They were definitely watching him. He glanced over at one of the cars and a little girl in a yellow dress stuck her tongue out at him. The man driving turned around, stared at her, then stared at Paul, a look of disgust creeping over his face. Paul looked away, and started jogging. Despite the cold, he was sweating by the time he got to Tony’s. He knocked on the battered door, as the bell didn’t work.
He waited, out of breath, trying to smooth down his hair with his hands. He knocked on the door again. Megan opened it. She was dressed in a vest top and polka dot knickers, black make up smudged under her eyes. She wasn’t wearing a bra under her tight vest. She blinked at the sun and looked pained.
He nodded, trying not to look at her nipples, and felt his face flush. She spun around, and he followed her up the stairs to the first floor flat. He watched her bum as she walked, enjoying the way her slim hips slowly moved from side to side. She knew he was looking, and smiled at him over her shoulder. He thought about how her teeth were crooked, how he didn’t even mind.
He nodded and looked down at the threadbare carpet. She wasn’t wearing any shoes and her toenails were blue, a sky blue, the same colour as his dressing gown.
She pushed open the door and stepped into the lounge. The curtains were open slightly, and a sliver of light split the room in half. Tony was sitting on the carpet in his boxer shorts, fixated on the huge T.V screen, his fingers and thumbs deftly pressing the buttons of the Xbox controller. Apart from his face and hands, Tony was completely covered in tattoos. His stubble had turned into a beard long ago, and his black hair was uncombed. He swore suddenly and threw the controller at the screen. It missed and landed under the coffee table with a thud.
“You put me off!” He sat on the couch and swore several times. Megan switched on the light, then lay across him, singing a song from a sofa advert at the top of her voice. Tony put his hand over her mouth and she bit it hard. He sucked the side of his hand and looked over at Paul, who was still hovering in the doorway.
Megan sat up to give Paul room to sit down. He sat next to Tony, and studied the T.V screen. A soldier was lying in a pool of dark blood, still holding a gun tightly in his hand. He was surrounded by people’s shadows. Paul didn’t really understand the appeal of video games, apart from that they passed the time.
“I’ve made up my mind.” Paul said. “I want it. Definitely.” He chewed his bottom lip and tried not to smile.
“You got all your stuff here?”
“You getting a dragon?” Megan asked.
“I think so. If that’s ok?”
“You want one?” Tony asked her.
“Give it a rest.” She jumped up, and went into the kitchen. She turned on the tap then flicked on the kettle.
“Two coffees,” Tony shouted.
“Make it yourself,” she shouted back, but they heard her open a cupboard and slam down three mugs on the work surface.
Tony opened the drawer under the coffee table and took out a purple, plastic folder covered in stickers and tip ex, and a brown paper bag. He handed Paul the bag, which he knew contained a sealed sandwich bag. He shoved it in his back pocket, taking care to tuck it in properly so that it didn’t show.
From the folder, Tony pulled out a pad of tracing paper.
“I did some sketches. Which one you want?” He handed it to Paul but he didn’t open it.
“You slept yet?”
Tony shook his head. “Nah, drawing. Then Chloe called me. The girls have got chicken pox.” He took his mobile out of his pocket, and glanced at the screen. He put it back in his pocket and absentmindedly pulled sheets of paper out of the folder, then put them back.
Paul watched him, frowning. “You know Megan?” he said, finally.
He cleared his throat. “Where did you meet her, again?”
“Could you show me how to use the Internet? You know, if you’ve got time, whenever.”
“Yeah, whatever. Choose which one you want. Haven’t got all day.”
“What else you planning on doing?” Megan said, from the kitchen. She came in carrying three mugs with difficulty, coffee spilling on the carpet. She’d put on orange lipstick and pouted at Paul when she handed him his mug. Tony was texting and didn’t notice. The coffee was black and smelled very strong but Paul didn’t mind. She sat cross-legged on the carpet by Tony’s feet, and sang softly a song he didn’t recognise. He wanted to ask her what it was but didn’t want to disturb her. Her eyes were closed, and she looked so peaceful.
Paul opened the sketchpad and his eyes followed the intricate pencil lines that covered each page. As he stared at dragon after dragon, at their snarling teeth and sharp claws, he felt a shiver down his back, and was ready for the needle to pierce his skin. He looked up at Tony and jabbed one of the pages, not really caring which one it was. It didn’t matter.
Megan took the sketchpad and held it at arms’ length, studying the page. She showed it to Tony, who put down his mobile.
Megan got up off the floor and sat between them. She grabbed Tony’s face, and kissed him hard on the mouth, running her hands through his hair.
“It’ll be amazing. You’re amazing,” she said.
Paul turned away. He picked up the pad again, and looked through it slowly, tried to focus on the drawings. Tony had lipstick smeared all over his mouth and he wiped it off with the back of his hand.
“I don’t know,” Paul said and stood up. Why had he been so stupid?
“You alright?” Megan asked.
Megan and Tony were still sitting down, looking up at him, and he felt tall and awkward. He looked at them, at their messy hair and the lipstick on their faces.
“Changed my mind. Sorry.”
Paul walked out of the flat and down the stairs, back into the bitter cold, and pulled the door gently behind him. He didn’t notice that it was raining. He crossed the street, even though he didn’t need to. He put his hands in his pockets and stared up at their window, wondering what to do, wishing he were back inside. He saw the curtains flicker, open slightly, and close again. He stood staring at the curtains. It was Megan at the window. It was definitely Megan.
I have read Raymond Craver’s short stories so much that I know them practically by heart. I love his sparse descriptions, painfully realistic dialogue and his sad, wistful, and familiar characters. I also love Clare Wigfall’s collection The Loudest Sound and Nothing, and have been lucky enough to be mentored by her on Spread The Word’s Flight Programme. Her stories are full of beautiful imagery and the characters are so well realised that you feel like you know them. Each story in the collection is so different it’s like they were written by different authors yet each one is uniquely brilliant. Read her.
Everything by Ali Smith. I have been to some of her readings yet I didn’t ask her to sign my book because I am too in awe of her that I really don’t think that I could speak to her. One day I will pluck up the courage… Hopefully. Reading her stories and novels is like listening to people’s conversations on the train. They’re so intimate and realistic and funny and make me smile when nothing else can. Ali Smith could make an incredible story about absolutely anything and make it seem so effortless.
J.D Salinger’s Nine Stories. Incredible. A Perfect Day for Bananafish is perhaps my favourite short story ever. To me it is perfect and even though I know the ending, it still shocks me every time. There are too many!
Tobias Wolff, particularly A Bullet In The Brain. So unique. ZZ Packer, A.L Kennedy, Miranda July, Rachel Cusk, Lorrie Moore, Truman Capote. Salt’s Best British short story anthologies are always excellent. I could go on but I’ll control myself.
Hannah holds an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University. Her poems have been published in Pomegranate and Map, and she is currently participating in Spread The Words’ Flight Programme. She intends to publish a short story collection, a play and a novel before the age of thirty five, “even if it kills me.”