We’d agreed to meet Harry in Vern’s Tap, a few weeks after he’d got an arm caught in one of the machines at work. It was a grotty little hole. Under-lit, and full of old guys that’d been left behind by life, but it was near the steelworks and the booze was cheap. We went there every Friday, after work.
We floated over the usual stuff: women; sports; pay. But after two or three or four hours I started feeling kind of uneasy. There was a tug in my gut. Call it instinct, or whatever else you want, but I felt a sudden need to get home early that night. I left the bar to a chorus of light-hearted booing from the work guys, and Harry, using his good hand, threw me my cap. “Get out of here you boring bastard!” he shouted.
I was a little drunk, but nothing I couldn’t handle, so I got in the car and started off home, taking it easy on the pedal. On the way back the street lights blurred through the windshield, and the raindrops reflected the light in all directions. I parked a few streets away from the house and decided I’d tell Lou that I’d left the car outside the bar. If I’d told her I’d driven it home she’d have thrown a fit. I abandoned it, one wheel up on the kerb, and walked up the street as if I were being kicked at by my own shadow: those final two whiskeys had caught up with me. I turned the corner onto Grandview Street, and looked up at the five-bedroom family homes with their pristine front lawns: paradise at the edge of the city. I thought of the guys back at the bar. They couldn’t get close to a place like this. They all had their shitty one-bedrooms in the city, with mould growing in the corners of the kitchen, or their shacks out in the middle of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t have it bad exactly, but they couldn’t even get near to a place like this. I couldn’t either, if it hadn’t been for Lou. It was all her doing. She had a job in the city, a real big-shot position, and earned us a nice little packet.
I’d been to a few of her work parties in the past, held in those fancy bars that always seemed to have names like The Attic or The Lounge. I’d met her boss at these things. Some slimy, arrogant prick: all hair product and cologne. Victor. That was his name. I didn’t like him, but I listened to his stories and laughed in all the right places. Lou was going for a promotion, after all. Most people at these things didn’t have much time for me, so I’d generally operate at the fringes, sitting alone at the bar or lingering around the buffet table if there was one, willing to make polite small talk if anybody made the effort. I found it interesting watching her talk to her colleagues and would notice every time she’d take on a look of seriousness or change the tone of her voice when they were talking business. It made me wonder if they ever saw the girl I’d met in the bar near the steelworks. The girl who’d thrown a drink over some mouthy barfly. Before the education, the commendations, the internships and interviews.
Victor would leer over her at these things. I’d seen it. He’d put his hand on her shoulder or waist when they were laughing at some joke he’d told. I remember watching them from a far corner one night, sitting closely, whispering things to each other. Either they didn’t know I could see them, or they didn’t care. It was late, so I went over to tell her we needed to leave so I could get some sleep before work. They were drunk. I remember her sighing, and him saying: “We’ll need to continue this discussion at a later date. I’m intrigued to hear more.” Her face straightened in mock-seriousness. “Of course, I’ll pencil you in, sir.” They both laughed, and I swear, looking back, that he caught my eye at that moment, and gave me a look as if to say, “You’re fucking powerless to stop this.”
I was silent in the car on the way home. Lou stared out of the window. After a while she said, “Victor liked my ideas. He seemed really interested in what I had to say.”
“I got that impression,” I said.
She rolled her eyes.
“I suppose you have some sort of issue with him as well.”
“I didn’t say that.”
She laughed at me. “You didn’t have to say it. You don’t like anyone I work with.”
“I like Yousef,” I said.
“The guy who does the post.”
“Well, okay. But apart from Yousef, you hate them all.”
“He’s a leech,” I said. “Victor is, I mean.”
She looked at me.
“He’s all over you, isn’t he. He sort of, I dunno, clings to you at these things,” I said. “I hate all that bullshit posturing as well. I mean, how much do you reckon that suit cost him? And that car. Kind of showy, don’t you think? You do well, you know, buttering him up. Laughing at his jokes and everything. And he buys it too.”
I kept my eyes on the road, but I could tell she hadn’t stopped looking at me.
“I’m not ‘buttering him up’. He takes my ideas seriously. And he’s put a lot of time in, showing me the ropes and everything. He’s the reason we are where we are. Not living out in the sticks.”
I went to say something, and then stopped.
“He’s been very helpful since I started,” she said, repeating the sentiment. “He’s helped me … no … us … out. A lot.”
“Plus, like I say, he likes my ideas.”
She looked out of the window again.
When we got home she went straight upstairs without saying anything. I sat in front of the television for a while with a whiskey, going over things she’d said. He’d helped us. He’s the reason we are where we are. I stayed there for a bit, polishing off another glass. By the time I went up, she was asleep.
Grandview Street was quiet apart from the sound of the Henderson’s dog yapping at the moon. I lifted my jacket’s collar to protect my neck from the rain, put my hands in my pockets, and hunched my shoulders. I hummed along to the tune of Lovesick Blues by Hank Williams as I walked towards the house, knocking over a couple of bins en route as I tried to steady myself on them. A siren rang out, miles away. About fifty yards or so from the house, I began to make out a car in the driveway, and I realised that Lou had company. “Shit,” I thought, “I’m blind drunk,” and I started laughing to myself. Lou wasn’t expecting me back for another couple hours. “Please God,” I thought, “don’t let it be her folks.” The thought made me laugh louder.
“That’s all you need, you juicer, you drunk, you nobody,” I thought to myself, “walking in, stinking of booze, stumbling about the place. They’d love that, wouldn’t they.”
If it happened to be the Hendersons, I thought, that’d be fine by me. I had a few things to say about that yapping mutt of theirs, and I wasn’t in any mood to hold back.
“I got a feeling called the blu-u-ues, Oh Lord, since my baby said goodbye,”
A bunch of kids drove past and threw an empty beer can at me, energising the street for a moment as they shouted something I couldn’t quite make out. I was a Neanderthal to them, lumbering, hunched and ungraceful, along the road.
It wasn’t until I got a few yards from the house that I recognised the car.
I opened the front door of the house, attempting desperately to control the shaking. I swear, as if some sort of wretched joke, I could hear my Hank Williams record playing in the living room. A pair of shiny, black shoes sat next to the welcome mat.
“…that last long day she said goodbye, well Lord I thought I would cryyy…”
I could hear muffled voices and laughter coming from beyond the kitchen. Two voices. They were sitting on the decking out back, under the canopy. My gut tightened.
They were smiling and joking and laughing as they walked through the sliding doors into the kitchen, glasses of red wine in their hands. Lou’s blouse was un-tucked and Victor’s tie hung loose around his neck.
As he fell back his head hit the granite worktop. The moment seemed to pass in flashes as my mind wandered around the room, catching glimpses from every angle. Every sound was drowned, for a moment, in white noise. Nothing felt real. It was like I was in a picturehouse. Lou was screaming.
“What did you do? What have you done?”
Then something about her promotion.