surviving uncertain fates

surviving uncertain fates
Photo: Iwona Pustelnik
A short story by Donal McLaughlin
At some point I started: jumped awake; my hands darting into the dish on the tray in front of me; the tips of my fingers landing full-square on chicken-skin I hadn't eaten. Drew, when I looked, was still across the aisle. Beyond the exits next to our seats snored folk who'd been to the same island, among them the father of five who'd hung, drunk, over the bannister, toddler-on-his-shoulders and all, as a slow queue, well past its sleep, worked its way down to the plane. The memory of everyone side-stepping the duty-free dribble from that guy's bag, and I dozed off again.
emSome time later came the chime: seat-belts for landing, doors to manual, etc. We both woke this time, turned, and looked at each other. I wasn't with it - said so, myself. Drew nodded, grinned, said, 'Great impersonation of Tommy Cooper earlier, by the way!'
em'So you saw that, did ye?'
emChuffed with his ammo for future slaggings, he grinned again.
em'Bastard! Never miss a trick, do ye?'
emHe was on for a carry-on, launched into a Cooper impersonation just as I did. The meal trays had been removed in the meantime.

We landed. The worst winter this century, police saying not to set out unless you have to. We had to. Drew driving, the long trip north from the airport, in the highest gear possible, crawling, concentrating. Ahead of us the likelihood of burst pipes, flats in a pure mess when we got there.
em'Just like that!' he quoted again, out-of-the-blue, and laughed. I laughed, too, able to take it, as he ooh-yugh-ed and wiped his fingers clean. Just summit else he'd witnessed, shared, I thought. His laugh, though, faded: eyes now studied me, were watching for reactions.
em'Can I tell you something?' he asked.
emI hesitated before I nodded, I suppose.
em'There's something I should tell you,' he told me.

He took me back to Boxing Day night on Fuerteventura. The shellfish soup, the paella outside the restaurant. I minded fine. Minded, too, the girl who was singing; her sidekick on keyboards, his medley of Eurovision entries.
emIt was Drew's turn to nod, and I could see he reckoned it safe to continue.
em'Well, mate, that night, I woke up, desperate for a slash, and when I came back: way you were lying - shoulda seen it!'
emHe paused, maybe testing the water.
em'Out wi' it, ya bastard!' I laughed, like there was nothing I couldn't handle. 'What was it about me, then?'
em'Not so much you as the pillow,' he said.
em'Pillow?' I asked. Bugger was enjoying this.
em'Well, it wasn't so much across your bed, as down it!'
em'Aw naw!' I groaned. 'So I'd been shagging the pillow and you, ya bastard, saw the evidence. Ya jammy -- !'
emThat was the reaction he wanted, of course: revenge for the time he was paralytic in Stirling and I claimed he'd snogged Susie Fraser.
emI was damned if I was saying another word. I wouldn't give him the satis-bloody-faction. He reached across, but, and sort-of shook my shoulder. 'It's not what you're thinking,' he said.
em'Both hands on the wheel, you!' I barked, shrugging him off. 'Specially in these conditions.'
em'But it's nuthin embarrassing, mate,' he protested. 'It's good. Speaks for you. That's why I wanted to tell you - '
em'Right, that's it! Stop the fuckin car!' I said. 'This'd better be swift 'n' painless - for your sake. Pull in at a convenient place and effin out with it, mate!'
em'And don't forget your hazards!' I added as he came to a halt. Way I was feeling, he'd be needing them.

What he told me was brilliant.
emSeems I was facing the wall, and my sheet was well down the bed, practically off me. Thing he focused on but was the pillow, parallel to my back, behind me: where Claire had been until six months ago, where she'd been since second-year uni.
em'So that's what this is about? Us separating?'
em'Shoosh,' he said.
emIt seems my left arm was out from under me and over and round the pillow. 'Round her,' as Drew said. 'Round Claire,' he added as I looked at him, no' believing I was hearing this. Ye go on holiday wi' the bugger, ten days over Christmas and New Year, and on the last leg of the journey home he starts playing the amateur fuckin psychologist?
em'So six months later, I'm still not over it, still missing her. Is that what you're saying?' I asked. 'Me hugging the pillow contradicts everything I told you down by the pool, confided as we hiked across hardened lava. Is that the story? I don't still love her, if that's what you're suggesting.'
em'Naw, that's not what I'm saying, mate. It's more than that. What I'm saying is: at that moment, I saw you, and I saw the pillow, and I saw what she walked out on. I saw the love you're capable of giving - and I'm no' goney see that otherwise, am I?' he added hurriedly. Must've seen I wasn't sure how to take this. 'All I'm saying, mate, is: what I saw underlined what I've told you before: you're some guy - '
emHe reached across and patted my shoulder again; looked me in the eye.
em'Her loss,' he said.

You'd forgive me for thinking that that was that: that the heavy bit was over, and I could now relax. While he was at it but, he decided to tell me that it was as if I slept in slow motion. I looked at him again: the fuck was he on about now?
emThe explanation could've been worse: before he dropped off again himself, he'd seen me turn in my sleep. Seems I did so fraction-by-fraction, millimetre-by-millimetre. As if someone had been sitting opposite me with the video remote-control, pressing the still-frame and slow buttons. 'Aye, like you, ya pervy bastard!' I tried to protest; there was no stopping him but. At one point, he said, he thought I would reach a brink, then topple over or collapse. Even then, but, it seems, I rolled in controlled fashion onto my back.
emSeeing me, he'd ended up wondering whether he slept in slow motion, too? Did everybody? Funny how he'd never noticed before with Sandra or Ann or Marie, he said. Or with Clare, his Clare, he hastened to add, Clare-without-an-I, or Valerie or Sam, for that matter. He'd got onto Naomi, Pamela and Sharon before he couldn't keep a straight face any more. I hit him a thump. 'Braggin' proddy cunt!' I said.
em'Least I've got summit to brag about!' he'd answer, I thought. What he actually said was: 'Maybe you've got to be on the other side of the room from someone, sometimes, to see what's going on.'

What really tickled the bugger but was: before he conked out again himself, he'd spotted that my right hand had a hold of the last corner of the sheet, and always, always, no matter what way I turned, made sure my privates were covered. The distance between the sheet and my stomach remained constant, he maintained; the precision was incredible.
em'So there ye go: virginity well oot the windae - still the bashful Tim, but!' he teased.
em'Least I wisni playin wi' myself like you'd've been,' I joked. 'Naw, that's the magnetic pull of the Catholic belly-button! Makes sure we stay dacent. You Prods haveni got that!'
emThere was a pause. Him (unusually) not rising to the bait. Me realising that, and why, my hold of the sheet had been perfected while I was still under my mother and father's roof. Minding being lucky as fuck the morning my da came in (he never did) to say John Paul I was dead. Sometimes things crop up that make you see you're not as free as you think. - Claire and her convent-girl night-shirt came to mind'n'all; Claire who made out she was being subjected to eyefuls if ever I slept naked beside her. Claire who accepted nudity only in the bathroom or when doing it. If she wasn't up for it, she didn't want to have that bloody thing staring her in the face, she said.
emDrew broke the silence, could sense something was wrong.
em'Did I do right to tell you, mate?' he asked. 'Bout the pillow and that?'
em'Aye, mate. Cheers. Ye did right.'
emI was lucky he'd seen me. Lucky he'd decided to tell me. I'd tell him another time about Claire; nuthin he doesn't know, anyway. Would have to give him a laugh'n'all: tell him about JP1 dying - and me starkers and hardly under the bloody duvet.
emRight now but, I wanted to savour what he'd told me. The love you're capable of giving. Was the same boy said I always pull sooner than I surrender (that's the Catholic in me, too, he claims). And when I was doing my hurt-hedgehog impersonations (as he called them) after losing Claire, was him coaxed me into opening up again; who insisted that having nobody is not nothing.
emI'd been quiet for too long. Was his turn to feel nervous.
em'Did I, mate?' he pressed. 'Are ye sure? Did I do right to tell ye?'
emI looked at him. 'Aye, mate, nay worries, ye did right. Ta.'
emI waited until I saw him relax, then hit him wi' 'Last fuckin time I share a room wi' you but, ya poof!'
emHe laughed. We shook on it. A clumsy attempt at giving each other five. He studied my face, grinned, made to get into gear; interrupted himself but to look at me again and give me a hug.
em'Cheers, mate,' I muttered as I eased out of it.
emHe checked his blind spot and we set off again.


First published in NEW WRITING SCOTLAND, Vol. 17, 1999

(c) Donal McLaughlin, 1999

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