When I’d known Geoff before, he’d been a two packet a day smoker, but now he was vaping.
I asked him what vaping actually was, and he said it was like smoking. Except you were vaping. We didn’t get into it any further.
Most days, I was struggling to make ends meet. The carousel was doing crap business, and its earnings barely covered the beachfront rent. Mums and dads would sometimes ask for their money back. Call that a ride, they’d say afterwards. Call that three pounds? But it was never the parents on the horses. The little runts would screw their faces into scowls; they wanted another ride, for free.
He was vaping when I closed for the summer.
“It’s July,” he said, puffing out a cloud. He had a few teeth missing, probably from smoking.
I was loading up a crate.
“I know,” I said.
“So, why are you closing?”
“I’m retiring,” I said.
“Bit young to be retiring, though, aren’t you?”
I stopped loading and looked at him; he was straight-faced. “You’re not kidding.”
He motioned to a horse. “Can I have a go?”
I must admit the thought of putting on all the lights again and having the music crank on didn’t appeal to me right at that moment, but he looked so serious. I unfurled the mains cable from one of the crates and plugged it into the generator. The carousel came on. I cringed at the sound.
Geoff sat on one of the inside horses. He was a big man, with a leather jacket, and turned up blue jeans. Whoever wore turn-ups nowadays? I thought. He hitched his sizeable haunches on the plastic saddle. With one hand, he gripped onto the upright pole; with his other, he held out his vape machine, as if it were a priceless artefact. I was going to ask him to place both hands on the pole, but he was a grown man.
The music played and the carousel spun on its expensive gear axis. This was the last time it was going to spin for the summer. Possibly for good.
I sat in my deckchair and watched him go around. He seemed unmoved by the experience.
As he bobbed up and down on the horse, he released vapour trails from his mouth and nose.
It was like he was on fire.
The Breton Coast
Today, Everett is hell-bent on destruction.
“I’m going to leave you,” he says, with a half-smirk. “You can have the flat and I’ll…I’ll just bugger off to France.”
I pour out tea into our cups.
“No, wait, wait.” He holds his hand in the air, as if the idea were floating above us. “We’ll sell the flat, then I’ll go to France. You’ll be free to do whatever. Like fuck Tim.”
I push the cup over to him and he stares at it. The steam rises in a curl. I picture Tim naked – not a good thought.
“You don’t know any French,” I say.
He snorts. “Ben, oui!”
Later, we have sex in the bedroom. He calls me a slut repeatedly, and at the end of it, he begins to cry. I cradle his head in my arm and shoulder.
“I mean it,” he says – meaning the French escape, I presume.
“I know you do.”
“I’ve always imagined it. A cottage on a crag. The Breton coast. Just me. No you.”
Everett is like a machine when he cries, a motor. Each sob is like a putter. I wipe the tears away with the nub of my thumb, and I rock him just so, just the right amount of rocking.
“I’ll live and breathe and walk along the cliffs and there’ll be nobody, not a soul for miles around to step on my toes, get in my face.” His eyes brighten. “And the sea air! I need that, I really do. To feel it and breathe it in.”
“Shut the fuck up!”
I leave him and walk to the bathroom. I have learned to count my steps. Every one. Simple. This time, though, I count in French.
I take out the pill bottle from the medicine cabinet.
When I return to the bedroom, he is prostrate. Face down. The window is open and the fly curtain is fluttering with the breeze, and there is the sudden screech of birdcall, as if we are on the edge of his Breton cliff. I lie down next to him and place one pill in the space between us.
His eyes are open but squinting, his jowls squashed flat against the pillow. He stares at the pill.
“I am serious,” he says, but he doesn’t sound it now; there is a change in his voice. “I’ll live in a small cottage, whitewashed and sandwiched between a boulangerie and pâtisserie.”
“And I’ll fall in love with a waitress at a local crêperie.”
With his eyes locked on me, he lets his tongue loose from his mouth and, with it, scoops up the pill; it sticks to the tip of his tongue, and then disappears quickly.
There is always this shift in the air, a slight alteration in cabin pressure when Everett takes his pill.
“I’m tired,” he says.
When sleep softens his face, I push a few strands of hair off his forehead and I kiss him, almost without my lips touching the skin. I look at him for what feels like hours. The light is fading from the window and there is a murmur of traffic, and I think about the Breton coast. I try to imagine it: the grey waves sloshing against the rocky cliffs, the dinghies bobbing up and down at their moorings. I see him in the window of the cottage. He is there, but not there. It is him, but somehow it is not him. A lookalike, a close facsimile.
“I’m so tired,” he says, stirring. He reaches out to me, his one hand blindly searching across the duvet. We have such a thick and soft one that when he pushes down, he cannot tell if it is my body under the fabric and feather. He cannot tell if he is touching me or not.
“I know,” I say in the dark. “I know you are.”
Falling For Suzanne
The man stopped dead in front of Suzanne; there was really nothing he could do to get past her. She had her hands on him.
“You and I, you and I,” she said, staring up at him. “We’re gonna fall in love…have babies…take walks…take naps…all of that.”
“I need to–”
Suzanne put a hand up to his face, almost pushed him full force, held back, and then poked his nose with a finger. “I know. A man like you…married…fucking married.”
He tried to pull away, but her grip on his left arm was tight. He pulled once more, and then gave up. He looked around desperately at the passers-by.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do…” She stroked his chin with her non-gripping hand like she was wiping something off his short-cropped beard. “Here’s what we’re gonna do…sweetheart…”
For a moment, if you were watching closely, you’d think she was having a seizure, her eyes rolling upwards, jaw slackening, sloping off to an under bite. But this was not the case. She snapped to. Her eyes refocused. Her grip on his arm doubled in strength. The man pulled again; a little tug so she knew he wanted to go.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna stand like this for another 30 seconds. You’re gonna look into my eyes. You got that? God, you’re beautiful…You’re gonna look into my eyes and if you haven’t fallen in love with me by then, I’ll let you go. Do we have a deal?” She did a little dance-trip, stepping forward then back with a smile.
The man mumbled something unintelligible.
“Do we have a deal?!”
He looked around. “Yes, yes.”
This was a long 30 seconds. Suzanne’s eyelids peeled open and shut for a few of the first, but then remained open for the rest. They grew like moons, cratered by burst arteries and slick with tears or general eye fluid. The pupils wobbled, quickly, almost imperceptibly. She also – for the last 10 to 12 seconds – emitted a very low groan from the back of her throat. If you were the man, you would not have been sure if this sound were coming from her. You would’ve doubted yourself.
Released, the man paused for a second. Expecting some kind of conclusion, or a call for a verdict, he dithered while Suzanne brushed something down and off her short, sequined skirt. A distant siren went off, which awakened some urgency in him, and he quickly went around her and resumed his usual activity – a walk to work from lunch break.
He didn’t look back.
Suzanne stared at the ground, neck and head curved to a question mark. It was mid-afternoon and the downtown crowds were in full swing, masses of faces and suits and haircuts and briefcases and handbags all vying for a way through. As they swarmed forward, they parted for Suzanne, they funneled around her, preferring to sidestep along the front of a bench or hop off a curbside than to get too close as she staggered, searching for that thing that she had dropped, that elusive, precious thing she was sure she had lost somewhere in this busy city.
Jonathan Cardew is a short story writer and editor based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His short [and very short] fiction appears in Atticus Review, Segue, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Postcard Shorts, among other places. He teaches writing at Milwaukee Area Technical College, where he also edits The Phoenix Literary and Arts Magazine. He is from a city in the north of England, known for its knives.
Check out Jonathan’s largely neglected blog here: https://jonathancardew.wordpress.com/
Check out The Phoenix Literary Magazine: http://matcphoenix.com/
All work is the rightful property of the author and is distributed with their permission.