Featured Short Story: ‘It’s December Before We Know It’ by Chris Edwards-Pritchard


 

The Short StoryChris Edwards-Pritchard’s short fiction has been published internationally in various magazines and anthologies including New York Journal the Bellevue Literary Review, the Irish Literary Review, Litro, the Bath Short Story Award Anthology and twice in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology. Last year he was delighted to accept the Gregory Maguire Award for Short Fiction, and in 2016 he has been shortlisted for the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Short Story Competition and is delighted to accept this International Writers Award from TSS. . You can follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisEPritchard


 

It’s December Before We Know It

By Chris Edwards-Pritchard

 

It was funny at first. Shelly told our boy Danny she didn’t mind him going out and getting absolutely twatted with the lads, so he went out and got absolutely twatted with the lads. And rounded off the night with a complimentary chunder in the glove compartment of kind Callum’s brand new Volkswagen Polo, or as it is now known, the Volkswagen YOLO.

 

*

They’d been together for a week. A week, and she’d moved in already. Pink razorblades, organic jasmine tea, nail files, the lot; a real shellyfication. Danny returns home at around five in the morning. Blackbirds already chattering. He’s 82% Jaegar, 3% kebab, 44% Still Dancing Genius, and attempts to enter the house in the same way an artist might put finishing touches to their masterpiece; the key his paintbrush, brow etched with focus, eyes squinting with purpose, a step back maybe, and another to balance, before jab jab jabbing. Then laughing. And then taking the whole thing very, very seriously because it was October 13 in Stroud, of all the godforsaken places on this good earth, and really quite bloody chilly all of a sudden. A fact that must be demonstrated, to nobody but himself and the pescatarian cat on next door’s porch, by a verbal brrrrrr. Seven minutes later he opens the door. Keys in the bowl, puke-soaked shoes flung into the scrapheap of shoes. Our lad is home, finally home. All that’s left is an insurmountable craving for Spaghetti Hoops and late night re-runs of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, on Challenge, if only to titter at Tarrant’s 90’s mop.

 

*

He is my favourite person in the world. Danny, not Tarrant. And I often think of that moment as the last of his truly happy moments, though we wouldn’t know anything about that until a lot later. Anyway, it’s getting on for five am, and there’s a light coming from the living room; a dull whispering lamp, so dim that if you looked at it for long enough you’d be forgiven for thinking there was no light at all. You know the kind. Shelly, our lad’s new girl, is lying on the sofa, naked.

As in: completely starkers.

‘Bliley,’ says Danny.

He’s hanging monkey-like from the doorframe.

Shelly stares right at him.

‘You look like Kate Winslet,’ he says. ‘You know, on the Titanic.’

Without saying a word Shelly stands and goes upstairs, bum shimmying into darkness. Strange. Three minutes later our Danny falls asleep on the kitchen floor, a half-slurped tin of Tomato Soup between his thighs, having failed in the epic quest for Spaghetti Hoops.  

 

*

Danny comes over for breakfast the next morning in pyjamas and a hoodie and scruffy hair which ranks on the Scruffyness Chart as somewhere between Joaquin Phoenix, post gladiator, and our dopey grey schnauzer, Pango (King of Fandango). His hand is stamped with a red triangle, now fading, and his little leaf eyes are perky despite the evident undercarriage of almost-slate, an early-twenties perkiness which rallies against the headache brewing just beneath his brow. It’s a deal we’ve had for years. If one of us has a big boozy night out then the other cooks a fry-up in the morning. Bacon, eggs, mushrooms, chipolatas, and eggs scrambled to the very point of cremation. Hash brown every now and then. Occasional waffle. A silly idea, really. And one that was beginning to backfire on myself, being four years older, with a child on the way and a group of friends who now collectively classify a heavy night out as a three hour game of Risk, The Lord Of The Rings edition. I had introduced the breakfast scheme when I was eighteen and had four glorious years of exclusive bacon and egg muffins, but now I was paying the price. I didn’t mind. If I told him it had to stop then he wouldn’t bother putting up a fight. He isn’t much of a fighter, our Danny.

 

*

We debrief the night. Sammy punched an ex cage wrestler, Johnny B unveiled himself as a homosexual for the eightieth time, Luke stacked it down the stairs of Wetherspoons.

Clumsy little shits.

‘And what about Callum?’ I ask.

I like Callum. The boy’s got his head screwed on.

‘Him and Manpreet danced a little and then gave us a lift back,’ says Danny.

‘Nothing else?’ I say.

I’d seen Roman post about the Volkswagen YOLO puking incident on Facebook. Pictures and all. A selfie, too. Disgusting, but kind of funny. Shelly had probably seen it too. Danny takes a bite out of a chipolata. I change the conversation. I’m his brother, not his dad. His cool older brother who is totally down with the kids.

‘How’s the new girl, then?’ I say.

‘Great,’ he says.

‘Good,’ I say.

‘One thing though,’ he says.

‘Go on.’

‘Has Amy ever told you it’s okay to do something when she actually means it’s not okay?’

‘Oh man, all the time,’ I say. ‘It’s the basic premise of any relationship with a member of the female race.’

Amy shouts from the study that I should watch my mouth.

‘See,’ I say. ‘That means I actually don’t have to watch my mouth.’

His eyes brighten as much as it is possible for those perky little hungover eyes to brighten. Sun shining behind cloud, or somesuch analogy. He tells me that his punishment for getting smashed last night is a week without sex. Talk about tough measures. He doesn’t tell me about the Kate Winslet naked moment right there and then, but I find out about that later, in the hospital.

‘Dan,’ I say. ‘Just wait until you’re married and one week without sex will seem like a teeny-tiny drop in the coital ocean.’

We laugh in the kitchen, and Amy laughs in the study.

I let him have the final chipolata, the greedy little hungover bugger.

 

*

It’s December before we know it. The hilltops are covered in snow but it’s actually quite mild. The A46 is grittier than The Machinist. We’re at Mum’s old cottage in Painswick. She’s in the kitchen swearing at an overcooked joint of beef that’s gone all sticky and brown, letting it know that it’s both a bastard and an arsehole. I’m in the living room, where the fire is dutifully spitting embers. I’m in Dad’s stumpy chair, opposite Danny and Shelly, who are both a little overdressed for a family Sunday roast. And our lad has new hair. A really stupid double ponytail – straight out of Shoreditch. One at the back, and one on the top.

Like a frigging hipster.

They’re on the main sofa, his hand on her thigh, not saying a word. It’s kind of cute, I suppose, or at least it would be if it wasn’t so annoying. But then, this is all new for them. He’s nervous. Cut them some slack. Look at him twisting the cuff of that superwhite herringbone long-sleeve and picking imaginary specks of fluff from mustard chinos. Stop fidgeting boy. Shelly’s more relaxed, kicking back in a slinky mauve satin boatneck, a Zara effort, one foot on the coffee table, and her hair, brunette, spilling onto spine-like shoulders in a way that looks effortless but most probably took hours to perfect each curl and achieve the correct, and incredibly important, balance between frizz and grease.

They’re both vain as fuck.

Note: I need to have a word.

The doppel ponytail especially is a bad idea. And just look how slim she is. We’re talking: borderline anorexia. Whilst snooping at her pictures on Instagram a couple nights back Amy wondered aloud if Shelly’s mealtimes were weekly or fortnightly. And then had a minor breakdown about the size of her own ballooning waistline, which I attributed 100% to hormones. Shelly’s very composed, with blended and unanimated features; a kind of factory-setting face, choosing to communicate mostly with lips; pouting and pursing instead of yes I agree and no I’m not sure and please, go on, I really empathise with your first world problems. I’d never seen Danny quite so nervous. You would’ve thought he was waiting for a lethal injection, which was quite possible given Mum’s track record of over-boiling broccoli until it was yellow, and glowing, like Homer’s plutonium.

 

*

We’re all watching the telly, but none of us are really watching it. Iron Man is on. The third one. His cliff-top mansion is getting destroyed and falling into the sea so I make a quip about home insurance, but not even Danny laughs, and this is a guy who laughs at everything. I feel that this is good preparation for fatherhood. I grab a newspaper and tackle the crosswords, to prepare some more. And later I’ll buy a pipe and slippers on eBay.

Eventually Danny says: ‘I’ll grab us some wine, white or red?’

‘I’m all right,’ says Shelly.

‘You don’t drink?’ I say.

‘From time to time,’ she says, doing one of those weird lip smiles.

Like Posh Spice.

‘Come on,’ says Danny. ‘This is a family of hardened alcoholics you’ve got to have a vino to fit right in.’

Shelly shrugs.

And without even blinking, says: ‘my dad’s an alcoholic.’

Almost as a throwaway comment, almost quiet enough for his ears only, but I hear it also. Jeez, I wish I hadn’t. On the telly Iron Man’s collection of fancy cars are now zipping into the ocean.

 

*

We call our mother the Vicar because she looks a little bit like Dawn French. She’s a strong woman; the hairpin of the entire family, survivor of ovarian cancer, avid fan of Peter Crouch and Peter Pan; mis-sized heroes with a common appellation. She also happens to be one of this world’s most notorious feeders.

‘You need fattening up,’ she says to Shelly, who smiles and immediately clogs herself with a forkful of cabbage, to show willing.

Poor girl.

‘Don’t listen to her,’ says Amy. ‘Just look at me, she turned me into a bloated hippo.’

Vicar gives Amy one of her now don’t be so silly with your hyperbole looks and places her cutlery on her plate, neatly, in the centre.

‘I think you’ll find that I had no part to play in this little transformation,’ says Vicar.

Pointing at The Bump.

Vicar turns to Shelly, takes her hand.

‘I’m not the kind of parent to get too involved with my son’s sex lives,’ she says.

Everybody laughs except Shelly.

 

*

Shelly reminds me of a younger Amy, though less ballsy. Mother quizzes her some more, and Danny jumps in to answer some of the questions, like a contestant tag-teaming, dizzy hand hot on the buzzer.

She was born in Dulwich, grew up in Gravesend.

‘Whereabouts?’ asks Vicar.

‘Coldharbour Road?’ says Shelly.

‘Never heard of it.’

Her parents divorced at seven.

‘You poor thing,’ says Vicar.

Lived in Catalonia for just over a year with her Dad.

‘Nice.’

But it didn’t work out.

‘Shame.’

Trained to be a vet.

‘Nice’

But now works in a nursing home.

‘Shame.’

‘It’s rewarding,’ says Shelly, ‘but cleaning bums can be a real chore.’

We didn’t need to know that.

She can play the flute at Grade 7, but never practises any more.

‘Shame.’

Goes to Bonjo Gym every morning before work.

‘Wow.’

Though usually in bed by ten, unless Newsnight is looking particularly riveting.

‘Oh right.’

Amy shoots me a look with her eyebrows, and her eyebrows tell me this: we need to save this poor girl from such interrogation before she calls the whole thing off then and there.

‘So,’ I say, ‘who’s for pudding?’

Danny jumps up.

‘Hell yes,’ he says.

Amy brings in the pudding. Apple crumble, zingy lemon meringue, and a chocolate brownie with a salted caramel crust. All homemade. The Vicar sure loves to bake.

Crap at cooking, great at baking.

That’s the way it goes sometimes.

‘I’ll go for the brownie,’ says Danny.

‘Brownie all the way,’ I say.

We high five.

I nudge Shelly on the arm and tell her that she’s in for a real treat because these puddings are among the finest in the land. But she flinches, and I instantly regret nudging her on the arm. Not a fan of nudging then. I feel as if I have nudged a small child with a broken arm.

She flattens out her napkin on her lap, folds it in half and then half again.

‘I thought you were going to cut down on sweet things,’ she says.

Danny scratches the rim between eyelid and eyebrow, and tightens that ridiculous primary ponytail.

‘Sure,’ he says.

‘What, so no brownie?’ says Vicar.

‘No brownie,’ he says.

We all watch, agog and aghast, as if watching a caged lion being coaxed away from his daily steak, whiskers slumped, or maybe scrunched into whisker-ponytails, and pointing with perplexed paws.

It’s funny.

Awkward funny.

 

*

Danny picks up some popcorn on the way home from work. Salted, sweet, sweet and salted, caramel, chilli. Unsure of her preference. And a Daim Bar, too. They’re her secret weakness, though you mustn’t tell anyone. Not even he’s meant to know. He spotted a wrapper poking out of a Rivetta packet in the bin the other day. Ooops. Hope she doesn’t go mad at him for buying one. That’s the exact kind of thing she goes mad about. But hey, he’s excited. Not been this excited for a while. Long, long week at work. But now it’s Friday. Result! And better still: it’s the long awaited Star Wars and pizza night. I mean, finally. He’s been trying to get her to watch A New Hope ever since they became Facebook Official three and a half months ago.

And now the day is here.

These are not the droids you are looking for, and so on. Usually they have to watch one of her films because she’s had a long day cleaning bums or she has a slight headache or she’s just generally feeling low, and what she needs, more than anything else is a Strong Dosage of Ashton Kutcher, especially if that perky little ass is involved in a scene or two. Which is bonafide sexism, but he usually can’t be bothered to present an argument. Who cares? Tonight is jedi night. And pizza. And popcorn. He hops through the door and places his shoes carefully on the wooden shoe rack. Because they have a shoe rack now and shoe racks are important. Carefully, as in: laces tucked inside. Toes pointed outwards. A shelf for him, three for her.

‘It’s me,’ he says.

‘I’m in here,’ she says.

He gives her a kiss and a cuddle and asks about her day. She says her day was good. Which is great. He tells her about the popcorn. Her preference is caramel. Which is great. The Daim Bar also works a treat. No issues there. She’s fully primed for Star Wars. The force is strong in this one.

‘You order the pizza,’ he says, ‘and I’ll find the DVD’s for afterwards.’

‘Okay,’ she says.

She always makes the takeaway choices now. It’s less hassle that way. Danny goes to the shellified alphabetised DVD collection, and begins scanning. Save The Last Dance, Say It Isn’t So, Serendipity, Shallow Hal, Stardust. Where’s Star Wars? Maybe she put it under A, or N?

‘Where’s Star Wars gone?’ he says.

Not under A, not under N.

What’s this all about? He searches again. And again, on his knees this time. Then back into the living room to ask where the bloody DVD’s are? Shelly’s standing in front of the gas fire looking at herself in the mirror, tying her hair into a bun and checking that her make-up doesn’t need any re-application, turning one cheek to the light, and then the other. She tells him that she gave them to a charity shop. The DVD’s. She gave them away. And before he even has a chance to respond she pushes him onto the sofa. Not a soft push, but a thrust. Stronger than she looks. Who knew so much power could come from such a boney frame.

‘What are you doing?’ he says.

She takes off her top and unpings her bra.

Woah. There’s the Winslets.

‘What are you doing?’ he says again, but this time with eyes a little wider and a smile beginning to seep from his jowls. But: no. This wasn’t part of the plan. This was meant to be Star Wars and pizza night. Why does she always do this? She climbs onto him, and begins sucking at his neck. ‘No’, he says, his hands working their way down to the small of her back.       

   

*

It’s early afternoon. We’re in the beer garden of the Green Lion waiting for Chelsea Aston Villa to start. Barely warm enough, but Jan needs the fresh air. Jan’s my best mate. He’s already pissed. Danny is with us but he’s not saying much. He’s staring at Jan as if gawping at an image of his former self, but I can’t tell if that’s pity or desperate nostalgia behind those tired eyes.

Note: have a word.

‘Well then,’ says Jan kicking back in his chair like a millionaire. ‘Not long until life as you know it changes forever.’

I smile.

‘You know there’s still time,’ he says.

Pointing at me with three fingers.

‘Time for what?’

He looks at me as if I’m the World’s Biggest Moron.

‘Punch her in the stomach, push her down the stairs?’

‘Really?’

He puts his chunky arm around me and mutters something about being proud, oh so proud.

Danny is nursing his glass.

‘What is that?’ says Jan. ‘Vodka coke?’

‘Just coke,’ says Danny.

‘Oh come on man,’ says Jan, ‘I don’t wanna be the only one drinking. Let me buy you a pint?’

‘Nah,’ says Danny.

‘Two pints?’

‘Nah,’ says Danny, ‘if I come home sober she’ll let me, you know.’

‘Let you what?’ I say.

Although I already know.

Danny looks away from the table, pretending to take interest in a pair of blue tits skipping around and gathering twigs and moss. Jan, always slow on the uptake, says: you cheeky little weasel. He drums the table. Danny smiles.

‘It’s not all about sex,’ I say.

And feel instantly like my Dad.

As if Dad just burped out of my mouth.

‘Shut up you tart,’ says Jan.

And quite right, too.

Let the boy live.

‘He should get as much nooky as he bloody well likes in the early days,’ says Jan.

He bumps Danny on the shoulder. Danny flinches. Jesus, not him too. Another nudge-a-phobic.

‘You alright?’ says Jan.

‘Yeah,’ says Danny, ‘it’s nothing’.

‘Fall over again rat-arsed out with the boys?’ asks Jan.

Danny nods, holding his shoulder.

I get out my phone and scroll through Danny’s Facebook page. There are pictures of him and Shelly in front of Big Ben and the London Eye and the Eiffel Tower and so on, and a few of the two of them on a double date with Callum and Manpreet at Basmalti Palace, but none recently of the group of lads on a night out; no signs of any raucous behaviour.

 

*

I take a sharp left onto Bowditch Road. Narrowly missing a hedgehog.

‘Woh woh woh,’ says Amy.

‘In two three four,’ says Danny, ‘out two three four.’

And again.

In, and out.

They’re both in the back.

Amy’s perched on a beach towel, seatbelt strapped between her boobs and The Very Imminent Bump. She’s squeezing Danny’s hand. Quite possibly breaking Danny’s hand. Crushing his knuckles. He doesn’t seem to mind. It’s just after seven at night. The sky is a dull pink, and the streetlights are flickering. It’s not particularly warm but we’ve got all the windows down, and Ronan Keating is blasting out the stereo, as requested. All of us singing: life is a rollercoaster you just gotttta ride ittt, two, three, four. They’re getting closer togetheahhhhhhhhhhh, says Amy.

‘Okay,’ I say.

‘I’ve got this,’ I say.

Danny’s phone is ringing.

It’s been ringing on and off since the water’s broke.

‘Are you going to answer that damn phone lad?’

‘This is more important.’

‘Who the hell is it, PPI?’ I say.

‘Shelly,’ he says.

I look at him through the rear mirror. One hand enduring death-grip, the other holding his phone as if it were a grenade. Still rocking that barmy double ponytail. He’s lost a bit of weight. The Vicar won’t be happy about that. A little gaunt, maybe. Cheekbones and chin. Really tired eyes. Not helped, I suppose, by the blue underlighting of his phone. Mother will prescribe him cake, and extra cake. And quite right too. If Shelly allows.

Which reminds me: need to talk to him about Shelly. Get a status report.

One, two, three, four.

Deep breaths, deep breaths.

‘Are we fucking there yet,’ yells Amy.

Face red, hair sweaty.

‘I don’t want to give birth to our child in a Vauxhall Nova,’ she says. ‘It sets up the wrong expectahhhhhhshions’.

 

*

We’re there before she knows it. I hop out, and so does Danny.

‘You take her in pal,’ I say, ‘and I’ll park the car.’

‘I’ll park the car.’ he says.

He puts his hand on my shoulder. He’s never done that before. Most strange. Dad did the same before he died. His eyes 100% honed in on mine. A kind of you don’t need to worry about me anymore hand on the shoulder. But is that true?

‘I need to get back to Shelly,’ he says, ‘that’s over thirty missed calls now.’

‘Thirty?’ I say. ‘Jesus.’

Worse than the Vicar.

‘Can I take the car?’ he says.

‘Sure.’

‘It will save you like fifty quid in parking tickets.’

Which is true. I was quite looking forward to getting angry about that, as a pre-dad ritual, but this plan makes sense. It’s sensible. It’s unlike him to have a plan. He gives me a hug and wishes me good luck and now Amy is banging on the glass and swearing at the both of us so I let the little bugger go. Off you scamper. Go home and have wild sex with your girl. I’m a father now. Almost. Let the young be young. Alright Amy darling, let’s get you inside, you’re doing grand, just grand, almost there now, just a few more hurdles, one, two, three, door.   

 

*

Danny mounts the curb and dashes inside. The telly is on. Keys in the bowl and straight into the living room. Half expecting her to be curled up in a ball crying her heart out or lying there stretched out like Winslet again, as she has done many times before, all supple and proud. Instead she’s just sitting there watching the telly. Hugging a pillow as she always does when she’s watching the telly. It’s Finding Nemo. The bit with the swarm of jellyfish.

There are no other lights on so the room is pink.

‘Everything okay?’ asks Danny.

‘Take your shoes off first,’ she says.

He unlaces his trainers and pops them on his shelf of the shoe rack, and then begins telling her all about the waters breaking in the garden and trying to keep Pango, our dog, away from the waters and then the rush to the hospital.

‘Is everything okay?’ he says.

She hasn’t even turned around to look at him.

‘I didn’t have time to answer your calls,’ he says, ‘you understand?’

She places the pillow to one side, turns the telly off and pockets her phone. Face hard to read. Lips not even giving anything away. She takes his hand and leads him up the stairs.

‘Look,’ he says, ‘if you’ve called me back here for a shag I really don’t think it’s a good idea because we should both get to the hospital.’

But he’s unbuckling his belt anyhow. Maybe it will be the quick version. Keep it uptown. She turns left at the landing, away from the bedroom. Which is odd. Maybe a quickie in the shower? Yes, into the bathroom. Could do with a shower. He’s now unbuttoning his shirt.

‘I want you to see something,’ says Shelly.

‘Absolutely,’ says Danny, grinning.

‘Bend down,’ she says.

That can only mean one thing.

‘No,’ she says, ‘over here by the toilet.’

‘The loo?’

‘Bend down,’ she says.

So he bends and stares into the loo. There’s a thick smear of brown at the bottom of the bowl.

Man that’s nasty.

‘Clean it,’ she says.

She’s standing behind him now.

Almost over him.

Kind of towering for such a small person.

‘Okay,’ he says, re-buttoning his shirt. Brow furrowing. ‘Okay I’ll clean it but I need some stuff. Some you know whatever it is. Mister Muscle?’

‘What’s wrong with your hands?’

‘You’re kidding?’ he says.

‘Go on,’ she says.

‘No way,’ he says.

But now she’s leaning down and grabbing his hands and forcing them into the bowl. He’s resisting her, but gravity is on her side, and he’s worn out from earlier, all the rushing around. Her fingers are bolt-tight, her nails are digging in. And now his hands and hers make contact with the water, not a splash but a tempered plunge, all knuckles locked like mountain ranges, subsiding, slipping and dipping through the surface bubbles, deeper and deeper, until his face is wedged against the pale blue rim of the toilet seat and their arms can stretch no further.

 

END


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