Thursday, 18 July 2013

Both Eyes Open


Tim placed the mug of coffee on the bedside table and lay down fully clothed. He regretted the last two beers, and if he'd known himself better would have admitted to regretting the whole evening. He was irritated with himself for breaking his rule of avoiding Peter when in need of emotional support.
He looked across at the coffee mug. The coffee would be getting cold. It seemed a long way away. He would drink it in a minute. First he would just rest his eyes for a second.
He woke without knowing what had woken him. The bedroom light was on. In gormless panic he tried to guess the time of day. The phone began ringing for what he realised was probably the second time. He stumbled and hopped across the clutter of the bedroom floor.
Seeing from the kitchen clock that it was three a.m. he snatched up the receiver ready to snarl at the hapless misdialler on the end of the line.
It was a furious Yvonne. 'Was he with you tonight then? He said he was.'
'Who, Pete?'
'Yes Pete, who the fuck else?'
'Alright, calm down. What's up?'
'He's not back. He's not home. Did he say he was going on somewhere else afterwards?'
Tim had been here before, times without number. Usually he could drag a tidy lie out of his mouth for such occasions, but this time he couldn't quite manage it.
When he'd accepted Pete's invitation to the gig at the Buffalo Bar, he'd persuaded himself that his friend's mixture of brass neck and cynicism might jolt him out of his maudlin state. But this hadn't been the effect. When Tim, drunk, started lamenting the recent termination of his relationship with Debbie, Pete barged him away from the subject with a slap on the shoulder and the advice, 'Fuck her, mate. A couple of weeks of grudge-wanks and you'll have completely forgotten about her.'
Tim went and sat in the gents for five minutes to let his annoyance subside. The slap had felt all too familiar. Pete was a practised slapper of backs, a skilled user of the word 'mate', as if these things repaired any hurt. They were shorthand he'd used when he'd finally confessed to Tim about that night at the Garage.
There, on a similar occasion, Tim had returned from the toilets to find Peter had vanished. The venue was small and beginning to empty, so he never swallowed his later excuse that he'd been unable to find Tim so had called it a night and gone home. Almost a year later he admitted that in successive visits to the bar he'd got talking to a woman. While Tim was in the toilet they'd made good their escape.
Tim rejoined his friend. The band had finished their set, so conversation could resume. Talk safely returned to the subject of Pete. Deadpan he related the row he'd had with his wife Yvonne over his failure to mark Valentine's Day. 'I hadn't forgotten. I knew it was Valentine's.'
Tim didn't feed him the prompt.
Pete didn't falter. 'I took Maxine out for a meal.'
'Did Yvonne know?'
'Course not.' Pete sighed, looked at Tim and said, 'I want to be single like you.'
Under the noise of the next band starting Tim muttered that he was going the right way about it.
Music over, they climbed the stairs to street level. The doorman clicked his people-counter twice. Tim took a step in the direction of the Holloway Road, but Pete hung back.
Tim said, 'You not getting the 43, then?'
Pete shook his head. 'Thought I'd drop in on Maxine.'
Tim headed for the bus stop. Behind him he heard Pete say, 'You'll do the necessary if necessary won't you?'
With the sound of Yvonne's shallow breaths pulsing in his ear he thought of what doing the necessary meant. He tried to swallow the dryness in his mouth. 'I'm not sure where he is.' Strictly speaking it was true. He neither knew nor wanted to know the address of Maxine's studio flat.
'Fucking hell,' Yvonne said. Now there was an undertone of worry mixed with the anger in her voice. 'Listen, if he rings let me know, yeah?'
'Okay.'
Once off the phone he made another coffee and considered what to do. It still wouldn't take much fixing. He could ring Pete on his mobile, explain Yvonne had caught him on the hop, and, that half-asleep as he was, he hadn't been able to come up with much. He tried the number, but the phone was switched off.
He knew Pete had a second mobile, but Tim didn't know the number for it. It was this second phone which was always set to vibrate, and would regularly go off on their nights out together. The conversations on this phone were always hurried and hushed. They would always end with a muttered, 'Yeah, you too,' followed by a satisfied smirk from Pete.
Tim thought of the first time that he'd been shown this phone. Pete had stood like a gunfighter, a mobile in each hand and proudly said, 'Two phones, the mark of a true shagger. One for pussy and one for the rest of the world.' Tim decided against trying to phone again, and went back to bed.
He was just leaning over to slap the snooze button and begin his Sunday lie-in when the telephone rang.
It was Yvonne. What she said was confused, confusing, as if she were blurting out thoughts unedited. 'What if he's been run over? Or attacked? Or got into a fight. You know how obnoxious he can be once he's had a drink. He could be in hospital somewhere.'
Tim lit a cigarette so he could think. 'I'm sure he's fine. Maybe he went on to a club. Or dropped round his Mum's and decided to crash there.' It sounded a bit thin.
'His mum hasn't seen him.'
Tim found himself nudging uncomfortably close to the truth. 'Maybe he's stayed over at a friend's.'
'What friends?'
'Oh look, I don't know.'
'You'd say if you knew where he was wouldn't you?'
'Course, yeah. Course.'
'I called the police but they said it's too soon to report it. I suppose they might want a chat with you if it really drags on.'
'I'm sure it won't come to that. Just sit tight, mate. He'll turn up soon enough.'
After the call Tim stood with the receiver pressed against his ear until the lobe became sore. He imagined the visit from a constable who would start out matey or avuncular and put on his best social worker voice to ask how Peter's mood was and whether he seemed low or preoccupied. He imagined himself weakening and spilling the beans, then admitting that, no, he didn't know Maxine's address and Pete had never told him her surname, possibly because he didn't know it himself. He could even see the expression on the officer's face as he reassessed Tim and his tawdry way of life.
It was no use. Mid-morning, unwashed and knowing he was still over the limit, he drove to Yvonne and Pete's flat. He considered leaving the engine running as an excuse but decided against it. She was in the kitchen. The light was on despite bright daylight, as if she'd been pacing the floor all night.
She beckoned him in. She lit a cigarette from the ring of the electric cooker. Her hands were shaking slightly. She said, 'Run out of matches. I didn't want to go to the shop in case I missed him.'
He stood a few feet in front of her for some moments. She asked if he'd heard anything. He shook his head.
She leaned back, supporting herself against the worktop. 'For fuck's sake.'
Tim sat down at the table. 'Look, I don't think you need to worry about him being safe.'
'What do you mean?'
'I'm just pretty sure he's okay, that's all.'
She walked over to him and pulled at his shoulder. 'What do you mean?'
Tim rested his hands on the table. 'He's with somebody. He's round her place. Not permanent, just, you know.'
'With somebody? With fucking who?'
'Alright, look, don't shoot the messenger but there's this woman he's been seeing.'
Yvonne punched his upper arm. 'You fucking prat. How long's this been going on?'
'Recent, it's recent. Just lately. I don't know.' He sounded flustered enough to be convincing.
They began to talk. She asked if Maxine was the first he knew of.
Tim said, 'Pretty much.'
'I'll take that as a "no", then.'
Tim stuck out his bottom lip slightly.
'Oh, Tim. You must think I just fell out of a bloody tree.' Her tone had softened. 'I'd've expected better from you. We're supposed to be friends.'
'Sorry.' Tim tried to sit with the feeling he had, but just wanted to get rid of it. He said, 'He never was much use to anyone. My chin was on the floor when you two got it together.'
Yvonne nodded. 'That's what it's like when you're that age though, isn't it? You'll go out with anyone, pretty much.'
Quietly Tim said, 'Not quite anyone.'
Yvonne looked at him, puzzled. 'You know what I mean though. We were none of us that choosy then. Some crap about fancying ourselves as Bohemian, or some daft balls.'
Tim scraped at the tabletop with his thumbnail. 'Do you remember that party on Shardeloes Road?'
'What, the one where I snogged you? God, I was so pissed that night. And pissed off. With Pete. I knew you wouldn't tell him, but I knew you wouldn't need to. It was always like he could see right into you.'
It was Tim's turn to frown, puzzled. 'Do you reckon?'
'Yeah. I used to be a bit jealous of that, resented it.'
Tim sort of knew this. He thought of a time he was caught in the crossfire between her and Pete. Losing the argument, Pete exited for the pub, slamming the door behind him, leaving Tim dithering in the hall. Yvonne had yanked the front door open and shouted after him, 'Go on piss off. And take the nodding dog with you.'
'I don't think you were missing much.'
Yvonne lit another cigarette. 'I don't think he's ever known what to do with women. That's why he always liked you to make up a foursome for holidays.'
Tim screwed up his nose. 'Wasn't always, was it?' The truth was, he was only ever asked when he was in a relationship himself. After some minutes of silence, he stood up, saying, 'Maybe I'd better leave you to it for a bit. This is all a bit depressing.' He let himself out.

Early evening, Tim was just putting some fish fingers under the grill when the phone rang. It was Yvonne again.
'If he phones, you can tell him I've gone.'
'How do you mean?'
'I'm leaving. Leaving him. Moving out.'
'Where are you going?'
'I'll stay with friends until I get something sorted. If he calls just tell him I'm not coming back.'
'What about the flat?'
'The tenancy's up at the end of the month. He can do what the fuck he wants until then. I've got a bloke coming round in a bit to change the locks.'
'Bit fierce isn't it? Maybe you should have a bit of a think about stuff first.'
'It's just until I get my things out properly.'
'What about when Peter comes back?'
'Should've thought of that before he got his cock out.'
Tim spent the rest of the evening trying and failing to watch a video. Every few minutes he needed to pause the tape, because of some new thought or memory distracting him. He kept remembering a quotation from somewhere, 'To find a friend close one eye, to keep a friend close both.'
Something that he felt unable to comprehend had brought Pete and him together, as if they had responded to some subliminal signal like a whistle only dogs can hear. And now, whatever it was, no longer worked. He thought of an evening not long after Pete and Yvonne had begun seeing each other. In the pub Pete had folded his hands behind his head and said, 'Goes very nicely, she does,' as if he was selling a used car. He thought of Pete and Yvonne's wedding reception. Heading for the gents, he saw Peter coming out of a cleaner's cupboard with one of the bridesmaids. He'd said nothing.

In the morning he woke early. He dressed without showering. He could shower afterwards. He knew that Peter would have to return to the flat to collect lesson plans and materials before he set off for school.
Tim parked as far from the flat as he could while still having a view of it. After thirty minutes he saw Pete walking round the corner, smiling to himself. He watched Pete try his key in the lock, try the doorbell, then step back from the communal door and look up at the windows of the flat. He watched him take his mobile phone out of his pocket and punch in a number. Pete's face grew angrier at each redialling.
Soon, in the car, Tim's mobile rang. The display told him it was Peter. He did not answer. It rang again and again. Tim closed his eyes, reopened them, and sent a text to Pete. It said, 'It's over.' He thought of Yvonne, remembered the way she'd wander around half-dressed in the flat the three of them had first shared. He knew she did it for the opposite of the reason he'd hoped for at the time. She would only ever be the wrong sort of comfortable with him. He forwarded the same text-message to her, put his keys in the ignition and drove.

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