Authors: Gary McMahon
The man – short, with thinning fair hair, watery eyes and a nervous grin – opened the door and took a step back into the hallway.
“Hello, Brendan,” said Simon, tensing against a potential blow.
“Simon Ridley? Is it really you, Simon?” The nervous grin became a smile, and then faded, dropping from his face like a sheet pulled away from a corpse. His eyes narrowed; his cheeks tightened. “What the
are you doing here?”
“Yeah,” said Simon. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Brendan’s mouth was hanging open, his lower jaw slack and immobile. Simon had only ever seen this expression in films, and the sight of it now, in real life, was almost enough to make him laugh out loud. But he didn’t. He kept it all inside, because he didn’t want to alienate his old friend before they’d even had a chance to talk. He didn’t want to push too hard. “It’s been a long time,” he said, smiling. “Too long...”
Brendan seemed to compose himself; he shook his head, smiled, and took a step forward, onto the doorstep. “I suppose you’d better come in. We don’t want to stand talking out here. I’ll get us a couple of beers from the fridge.” He opened the door wide, turned away, and walked along the hall.
“Okay,” said Simon. He entered the house and closed the door behind him. He followed his host into the kitchen, where Brendan was leaning into the fridge to pull out two cans of bitter.
“Is this okay? I don’t drink anything stronger for breakfast.” He winked. It was a purely instinctive action, and the quip was probably one he’d used a hundred times before, but the very fact that he was able to make light of the situation made Simon relax.
“That’s fine,” said Simon. “Thanks.” He reached out and took a can, popped the ring pull and dropped it into the bin by the back door. The kitchen was small and neat, with modern silver appliances, a pine breakfast bar, and varnished wooden cabinets. “Nice place.”
Brendan took a long swallow from his can, burped quietly, and then looked around the kitchen. “It’s okay, I suppose. Probably a lot different from your millionaire’s mansion, though.” He saluted Simon with his beer can.
Simon shook his head. “I live in a small flat. I have a tiny kitchen, two cramped bedrooms, and a view of grungy London streets. It’s hardly Buckingham Palace.”
“And a mattress stuffed with fifty pound notes, no doubt.” Brendan winked to show that he was joking. “Come on through. We can talk in the living room.”
The other downstairs room was twice the size of the kitchen, and dominated by a huge flat-screen television with cables streaming out of the back to connect the set to three separate games consoles. The Mario Brothers were paused mid-leap on the screen, their legs flickering, as if they were desperate to start moving again. There were framed landscape prints on the walls and family photographs on the mantelpiece, and the room contained too much furniture. A pine bureau was pushed up against the party wall, a bookcase stood packed with ornaments, and a pair of leather sofas and matching recliner armchair were gathered around a coffee table in the centre of the floor.
Brendan sat down on one sofa, so Simon took the other. They stared at each other at an angle. Suddenly Simon forgot why he’d come here. He’d run out of things to say before he had even said anything. He’d lost his bearings, and forgotten where the door was. The room was a box with a sealed lid. The net curtains at the window were opaque; he could see nothing of the outside world through them. They were spider-webs blocking his view.
He opened his mouth and said the first thing that came to mind: “How’s the new job?”
Brendan put down his can on the shelf by his arm. “How do you know I just got a new job?”
“Because you’re working for me. Well, specifically, I contracted the company you work for to keep an eye on one of my investments.” The room returned to its proper dimensions. Sunlight brightened at the window.
“Nightjar Security Services? Why them? Why us?”
“Because it’s the company you work for.”
A silence threatened to overwhelm the two men. They drank from their cans simultaneously, arms rising and falling in syncopation. Brendan crushed his can in his fist. The sound – a loud creaking – made Simon think of something that he couldn’t quite grasp. It sat there, the image, crouched in the shadows at the back of his eyes, waiting to be seen.
“Why are you here?” Brendan’s voice was low, almost a whisper. He put his empty can on the floor by his feet. “After all these years. Why have you come back?” He reached up and scratched the back of his neck, wincing as he moved his hand back and forth across the same spot. “What’s left for you here?”
Simon finished his own drink. “Any chance of another?”
Brendan nodded. He stood up, picked up his own can and grabbed the one from Simon’s outstretched hand, and went through into the kitchen.
Simon rubbed his cheeks. His hands felt dry, dusty. Was he doing the right thing by coming here? Did he even know what the hell he was doing?
“Here.” Brendan was standing next to him. Simon had not even heard him come back into the room.
“Cheers.” he took the can, opened it, and drank. His head felt light, as if he were on the way to getting pissed. One can of weak bitter and he was already dizzy. It was pathetic.
“So?” Brendan looked at the television screen, frowning at the Mario Brothers, as if he’d only just noticed them. He grabbed a remote control from the floor and turned off the set.
“I got all your little gifts.” Simon sat forward and took off his jacket, setting it down next to him. He was suddenly hot. The air was heavy.
“What are you on about?” Brendan sat back on the sofa, stretching out his legs. “I haven’t sent you a thing. I don’t even know your address – just that you live in some swanky gaff in London. Why the hell would I send you anything, man? You walked out of here and never looked back. You didn’t even say goodbye. Not to me, or to Marty, or to–” He stopped himself from saying his wife’s name, gritted his teeth, exhaled. “Not to anyone.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. I should have at least spoken to you before I left, but it all happened so quickly. My mum died, my dad moved to Whitby to be with his psycho older brother, and the only other option I had was to run away. I couldn’t stay here...” He didn’t want to complete the thought.
“We did. None of us had a choice.”
“You all had a choice –
all did. Nobody forced you to stay here.”
Brendan didn’t respond. He looked at his can, staring at the rim, into the small dark hole.
“Listen, I didn’t come here to stir up bad feelings. I’ve come to apologise for leaving things the way I did, and for not keeping in touch.”
Brendan sighed. The sound was too loud; it seemed faked. “What did you mean about gifts? What am I supposed to have been sending you? Letter bombs?”
Simon put one hand on his jacket. He squeezed the leather. “The newspaper clippings, the emails. The little reminders of what’s been happening here for all these years, while I’ve been away.”
“Sorry, mate.” Brendan pursed his lips. “No, that wasn’t me. I’d tell you if it was. I’ve had other things on my mind, like trying to raise a family, keep a roof over our heads, and hold down a shitty job. You know – crap like that.” He crushed his second can. “Another?” He lifted the can to eye level and jiggled it, a small challenge.
“No, thanks. I haven’t eaten properly since last night. I’ll be pissed if I have another.”
Brendan shrugged. “Please yerself. All the more for me, then.”
“So it wasn’t you? You didn’t send me any of those things?” Simon stared at the other man, into his eyes, looking for deceit.
“Why the fuck would I bother? Who the fuck are you, anyway, you self-centred prick? Do you think that all the time you’ve been away all I’ve done is think about you, collect things, and then post them to you? Get real, man. This might come as a bit of a shock, but you’re not the centre of the universe. You never were.”
Simon pushed his hand into his jacket pocket, fumbled around for what he was looking for, and then withdrew his hand, the fingers clasped around an object. “So,” he said, reaching out towards Brendan. “You didn’t send me this, either?”
Brendan looked at the acorn sitting on Simon’s palm. His face went slack, like the blood had suddenly run from his head and into his feet. He was pale; his eyes began to water.
“Did you?” Simon didn’t break eye contact.
“No,” said Brendan, standing. “No, I didn’t.” He went back through to the kitchen and returned with yet another can of beer. This one he drank quicker, as if he were trying his best to get drunk.
“What’s wrong?” Simon closed his hand over the acorn. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” It sounded like something he’d said before, a hundred years ago.
Brendan lowered his can and stared at Simon. “A ghost or a monster...”
Simon’s chest tightened. He squeezed his fist around the acorn. A sense of
came upon him, and he felt ten years old again, standing in the shade of the trees on Beacon Green. His cheeks were warm and wet; he was crying and he didn’t know why. He quickly wiped the tears away with the back of his hand.
Brendan was standing at the centre of the room, the backs of his knees pressed against the coffee table. It looked as if that was the only thing stopping him from swaying.
“Maybe I will have another drink,” said Simon. The world tipped back onto its axis and the muscles in Simon’s chest slackened, allowing him to breathe again.
“No,” said Brendan, shaking his head. He took a step forward, away from the coffee table, and his legs almost buckled. He staggered slightly, a man in need of support, and then moved across the room and grabbed the wall. “No, I think you need to leave.”
“We have to talk, mate.” Simon stood and made a move towards his old friend, but then thought better of it. He stood there, watching and waiting, wishing that he knew what to do. “Please. I have something I need to run by you – it’s important. It might help us all. Me, you... Marty: the three of us, the Amigos. Remember that? The Three Amigos? It’s what we called ourselves back then, when this fucking place was the whole wide world. Our club. Our gang. The Three Amigos.”
Brendan closed his eyes. He was scratching at the top of his back with his free hand. His lips formed a tight line; his entire body was tensed, rigid.
Simon persisted: “Seriously. This might be the thing we’ve all needed for twenty years. Maybe even a way out, a way back, a way beyond whatever it is that none of us can remember.”
“I can’t, not now.” Brendan opened his eyes. His shoulders were hunched, as if he were in pain. He spoke through gritted teeth. “Give me your number. I’ll call you later – we can meet for a pint before I have to go to work. We’ll talk then. I’ll listen to what you have to say. No promises. But I’ll listen...”
Simon grabbed his jacket, took a pen from the coffee table, and wrote down his mobile number on a till receipt from the petrol station last night. “You promise you’ll listen?”
Brendan nodded. He was still in pain. “For old times’ sake,” he said, and opened the living room door: it was as clear a signal to leave as a person could possibly give.
Simon set down the till receipt with the scrawled number on the arm of the chair and left the room. He didn’t look back, just in case he spoiled things. He didn’t want Brendan to change his mind. He needed the chance to speak – even if it was just for ‘old times’ sake’.
He wanted to try and put things right for them all.
RENDAN WAS ALREADY
on his sixth beer by the time Jane got home. He was sitting at the breakfast bar, staring at the wall, and trying to keep his mind blank. Drinking; just drinking, and not thinking about anything at all. Afternoon sunlight streamed through the window, but it didn’t quite reach him. He stared at the patches of brightness as they crawled slowly across the kitchen floor.
“Don’t tell me you’ve been sitting here drinking all day.” Jane hefted a couple of shopping bags and put them on the breakfast bar beside him. “Well?”
“No,” he said. “Not all of it... I slept a bit this morning, and then I had a visitor.”
“Was it that freeloading idiot Mark Maginn again? I hope you didn’t lend him any money. This shopping doesn’t come cheap, you know.” She started to unpack the shopping bags, placing the tins in the cupboard above the sink and the fresh stuff in the fridge.
Brendan watched her in silence. Then, feeling the need to break into the moment, he spoke again. “No, it wasn’t Mark Maginn. Not this time. It was someone else – somebody I haven’t seen for a long time.”
Jane had her back to him so he couldn’t see her face. Her chunky arms were raised above her head as she shoved two boxes of cereal – the twins’ favourite – into the cupboard alongside the tins of beans and spaghetti hoops. Her hair was still sweaty from her dancing class. She loved to dance; it made her feel young again. She’d told him this once, as they lay in each other’s arms after making love. Brendan couldn’t remember when it was. Nor could he remember the last time they’d made love.
“It was Simon Ridley.”
Jane stopped moving. Her hands were still inside the cupboard, pushing a cereal box through the blockage of tin cans. She was standing on her tiptoes. She paused there, unmoving, and the cereal box dropped from the cupboard and fell onto the floor. It made a rattling noise, like someone shaking a bag of bones.