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by Jack Larkham

Mike swings the van around the side of the house, past the tennis court and the outdoor pool.

Rob’s already there, waiting for him, fidgety. Mike resists the urge to punch him.

“Thanks for coming,” Rob stutters, offering his hand. He lets it hover there for a while, unacknowledged, before withdrawing it. “We can go inside if you want, if you-”

“How long’s she been gone this time?” Mike says. He still can’t begin to understand how Clara left him for this spineless little shitbag. He guesses it probably has something to do with the tennis court and the outdoor pool.

Rob looks down, pokes the toe of his shiny black shoe into the gravelled driveway, as if the answer to all his problems, all Mike’s problems, lies hidden there, just out of reach.

“Four days,” Rob says.

Four days?”

Mike’s already climbing back into the van. “Four days and you only call me now? Get in the fucking van.”

***

Rob says there’s this place near the train station. A hotel. More of a hostel.

“She’s drinking again,” he says. “Hanging out with the wrong people again.” He turns his head away, against the window, and wipes the tears away with the back of his hand.

Mike stops at a red light. It’s almost dark and the street is deserted, the boarded-up houses eerily quiet.

“A hostel?” Mike says.

Rob stops sniffling long enough to give him a name, a room number.

“I tried,” he says, biting his lip. “Last time, I really tried to bring her home, to reason with them. They said they’d kill me if I showed up again.”

Mike grips the steering wheel and floors the accelerator.

***

There’s a big fella blocking the door. Big ugly bastard with a blotchy, pock-marked face and mean eyes.

And ponytail.

“You must be Big Paul?” Mike says, walking right up to him.

“Who’s asking?”

“Me.”

“And you are?”

“Not important. A friend of mine, though, he said you might be able to help.”

“Who’s your friend?”

“Rob Westlake.”

Big Paul shakes his massive head.

Mike slips his hand into his jacket pocket. He’d grabbed a bull-nose chisel from the back of the van, just in case. He doesn’t think he’ll need it, but he likes to be prepared.

“You’d better fuck off,” Big Paul says, breathing all over Mike. Mike smells cheese and fags and something meaty.

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Fuck off.”

Mike thinks the meaty something must have been a pasty or a sausage roll because the big guy’s shirt is specked with flaky pastry. There’s some gristle, too, something grey and stringy wedged between Big Paul’s two front teeth.

Mike grins.

“Nice ponytail,” he says.

Big Paul stiffens.

“My little sister’s got one just like that,” Mike says. “But she’s nine years old. And a girl.”

Big Paul’s quick, quicker than a guy of his proportions has any right to be, but Mike’s quicker. Less than a second and it’s all over: sidestep, swivel, punch in the throat. Big Paul goes down like a sack of spuds, gurgling, frothing at the mouth.

Mike steps over him and grabs the ponytail with both hands. The hair is surprisingly soft and silky. Luxuriant, Mike thinks, as he digs his heels into the threadbare carpet and drags Big Paul away from the door.

***

Room 29 reeks of fag ash and cheap perfume and stale bodily fluids.

Clara’s on the bed, on her hands and knees. She’s not alone. Mike looks away, at the bucket of condoms and assorted lubricants on the bedside table, at the stained orange carpet and the peeling wall paper.

He forces himself to look back to the bed, at the tangle of arms and legs and mottled flesh. At Clara. He pretends it can’t be her because the woman on the bed is old and grey and ravaged: someone else’s ex-wife or mother or daughter or sister. Someone else’s problem. But he knows. He steps closer, close enough to touch the bed. Close enough to see the faded tattoo on her shoulder. His name. He looks away. It’s Clara.

***

Mike helps her with the seatbelt, and covers her with his jacket. He turns the heat up till the air is thick and dizzyingly warm, but she’s still shivering. He reaches out and places his hand on her trembling knee. Tells her that they’re going home, that everything will be better when they get home, but she turns away, glassy eyed, and stares out into the darkness.

Mike checks the wing mirror and pulls away. Rob’s in the backseat, curled up like a frightened child. Mike knows there are things that need to be said, but not now. Another time.


Jack Larkham is a northerner living in exile in London. His stories have appeared in, or will be appearing in, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama, and Dialogual.

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