Fiction: Fall Like Nelson – Richard Barr

He sounds like a crow trapped in a shoebox. He’s cawing. That’s the only word for it:
he’s cawing, loudly.

I continue, ‘…Do you really think I’d said all those things earlier, brought those things
up, touched lightly and tenderly upon all your self-perceived shortcomings and
angsts by accident? Stupid old me, smack my hand for my silly tactlessness! That I
didn’t know exactly what I was doing? I’m bringing us here, to this point, now, is what
I’m doing.’

He loosens his tie. He takes three deep breaths, eyes bulging, puffing his cheeks
out. He’s like somebody that’s just had a bucket of water dumped on them.

After a minute or two he speaks quietly, does not falter. ‘When did you start feeling
like this? I’m not a bad man. Was I ever truly, really bad to you, eh?’

‘What does that matter? A thousand cuts are all it takes. I mean, you have to ask
yourself, when did I really get to vent my spleen? That? That I left for others to hear.
The really nasty stuff I said behind your back.’

He gets up and begins to whistle, would you believe. Then he starts to scratch his
head. He does anything to stop from hearing what I have to say next. Thinks this
improvised fidgeting will act as a shield against the words I have that will be used
against him; that he knows will wound him, ultimately, shield or not.

He takes a stool and drags it over to the counter, hops up on it and leans back on
two legs. I’d mopped the floor a couple of hours previous, and, despite everything, I
get afraid he’ll fall, though not afraid enough to mention it.

‘What have you said? And to whom?’ he asks.
‘I’m not going to tell you that now, am I? Ha! Anyway, you’d make a good stab at
guessing one or two of them, I’m sure. No….Here’s what it is, anyway: people always
say, when they’ve heard some bod talking shite about them, “Yeah? Well say it to
my face!” Then…I always think to myself, who actually wants to hear a meticulous
and ruthless dissection of their character from friends? Or family? People they think
love them? And right to their face? I know I’d rather people said it all behind my
back. So face it, pig, I did you a favour. I was always doing you a favour…shielding
you…from me…and what I thought of you.’

I go and lean up against the breakfast bar. I roll a smoke, light it, and get another
vodka poured before I’ve spent my first draw. Like the last dozen, this one’s going
right down to the cork.

He starts to rock on that stool. I imagine he’ll go any minute. That he’ll fall like
Nelson.

‘You’re right.’
‘About what?’
‘About me making a good stab at who I think you’ve… slandered me to.’
‘Good. Good for you.’
‘I want to ask: did you tell them about…did you mention Katy ever?’
‘Katy?…What, that she’s dead?’
‘No! About…’
‘What…?’ I yell. I’ve only been sipping at the vodka, but it’s down the hatch in one
now.

He’s got me. He always knows how to get me. Lets me paint myself into a corner,
then watches me squirm. But his approach this time is different. He speaks softly.
His words are measured, precise. The rows we have, always skirting around the
thing – playing catch-up on the carousel – he presides over. He rants and he raves,
and the noise he makes about absolutely nothing at all…oh, I tell you. So that’s why
it’s different now; he’s different now. This is a row unlike the others.

He gets himself a beer and sits back up on his stool. He leans back again, into the
counter. ‘You didn’t answer my question earlier: was I ever…bad to you? Wasn’t
your hierarchy of needs catered for with lavish abandon? It’s supposed to be past is
past, and history’s recorded and put on the shelf, never to be looked at again –
though not with us, eh?’

He takes a slug of beer then puts his elbow back against the counter. He starts
rocking again, backwards and forwards, quicker now. I look at him for a long time,
like I’ve just been asked to provide an answer to the most obvious question in the
world, but can’t.

‘No. How could it be? You’re not seriously suggesting that, are you?’

He opens his mouth to talk more shite again, and it couldn’t have happened at a
more opportune moment – the stool, at last, gives way, slides right out from under
him and his fat hole lands with a dull heavy thump on the – very hard – tiled floor. And
the cawing begins again.

He’s back on his feet now. Says nothing. He goes to grab another stool, thinks better
of it, and instead sits his arse back down on the floor, leaning up against the pots &
pans cupboard, looking up at me, eyes wet like those of a cowed animal. This is a
first. I like it.

He says, ‘Let’s get back to what we were talking about earlier. What is this all
about? This is serious. Is it about what happened…? To her…?’
‘Let me get to the point,’ I say, draining another vodka. ‘This has nothing to do with
our history…though make no mistake, what happened is an all-the-time, heavy thing
that sits in the pit of my stomach, not moving, always there. And if you’ve forgotten
about it, or worse, just think it doesn’t really matter anymore, then you’re an even
bigger shite than I thought you were.’
‘Well, tell me!’ he roars, raising his voice for the first time tonight.
‘It’s secrets,’ I tell him. ‘Secrets of yours I bet you never, ever thought I’d find out
about. Was a total accident, matter of fact, how I did. Actually, it was only then, for
the first time since you dragged the three of us here, that I came to realise something
about this hole: secrets are very hard to keep here, even those secrets you share
with strangers. It’s too small a place.’

He gets up, gets a tumbler from the cupboard and sits down opposite me at the
breakfast bar. He takes my vodka and pours himself a large one. ‘Secrets are best
shared with strangers. This is what I have learnt in my experience. I suppose secrets
are secret because they have power, power over you. Their power lies in the risk of
their exposure. So you keep them to yourself, in a box, in a chest, in a vault, right
down in the innermost compartment of your heart. Yet secrets are hard to keep.
They want to get out, seek an escape route. They rest when your resolve is strong
and strike when your guard’s down.
‘So you seek out ears that will provide safe keeping for them. Ears that do not
belong to those you know well, those who may sometime in the future turn around
and use these deadly weapons against you. Pouring your intimate materials into the
ears of a stranger ensures that, unless you’re particularly unlucky, they will never
wash back upon you.’
‘Well, husband, you’ve been very unlucky, then,’ I say, laughing at him.

He sits there, gazing into his vodka, though he hasn’t lifted it to his mouth yet. He
raises his eyes sheepishly, maybe trying to affect a little-boy-lost routine or the
smouldering Hollywood leading man glance. He says nothing though, just begins to
try and stare me out. It’s as if he’s trying to see in behind my pupils, like he’s trying to
make out the inverted image of himself in there, projected onto my retina.

He collects himself, that gaze taking on some life, and some of the sentient returns.
However, it’s a great sense of alarm that has brought him back to earth. His back
straightens and he puts his hands over his mouth. It’s as if his unconscious has been
trying to delay this moment of realisation for as long as possible, knowing the
psychological fallout.

He keeps looking over my head, across the open plan, into the corner of the living
room. It reminds me of that night we went out into town. On our way home, I’d
suggested we went there, specifically. For a nightcap, I suggested – one more for
the road. Didn’t seem to bother him, that, or if it did he didn’t show it.

She was on, serving. I spied a nook in the corner and planted myself there, where
she wouldn’t see me. He spotted her and for the entire time we were there wouldn’t
stop looking over. His little confidante. Repository of all his secrets. He thought I’d no
idea who she was. But I did. I knew her and she knew me.

‘Knew her very well, very well. A client, would you believe? And she told me all
about you, not realising. About this one man, his daughter, what happened there,
with her…about his wife,’ I hiss, spitefully. ‘His drunken and revolting
admissions…how disgusted she was by him and these things he talked about and
should she tell anybody, outside of me, and if so, who. And while I recognised us,
knew it was you and me and…Katy…she was talking about, I did not recognise these
other things – these secrets you kept.’

He’s started to well up a little. There’s definitely a quiver in his voice. ‘Where is it?
Where’s the computer?’ he whispers.

The glass of vodka’s snatched up angrily from the table and he knocks it back in
one. Then he gets down on the floor and crawls on all fours like a baby into the living
room, over toward the corner where the computer tower used to sit. There’s rectangular patch of carpet there, still the same colour as when we had it laid,
untouched, a little island of pristineness. He puts his hands at either side of this
space, like he’s gripping the edges of the thing that is no longer there.
‘Where is it?’ he screams. ‘What have you done?’

I let go with my final, heartiest laugh of the night. He knows exactly what I’ve done –
it’s what comes after that he’s trying to second guess now. That there are just so
many possible repercussions, not one of which he can latch onto and think through,
is something that plants in his secret-filled heart a mighty and looming terror.

*

Richard Barr lives in Belfast and has had several stories published in the last few years, including in Lancaster University’s The Luminary, The Big Issue and The Scum Gentry Alternative Arts & Media. This last year he’s been published in Phantasmagoria Magazine, The Honest Ulsterman and Misery Tourism.

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