by L A Craig
Brendan’s mother warned him that girls who smoked would always give soiled kisses.
Katrina is a checkout operator at Clay’s Garden Centre; knows diddly squat about botany, but has swiped enough plant names to recall a few. She uses them on Brendan as he walks her home from the cinema. Japonica by the tennis courts, Berberis in a neighbour’s garden; who cares if they’re not?
New stock, she notices one afternoon, as a customer pays for the cutest little Bonsai. Valentine’s Day soon. Katrina asks for the one called Tree of a Thousand Stars.
Brendan makes a note.
Brendan tracks down the correct shrivelled specimen in Exotic Plants. He’d like it to look more substantial – a bow perhaps, but the assistant shakes her head and whispers, tacky. He doesn’t want to get it wrong. Katrina has already confirmed that a valentine card from Stationery will not be acceptable – seen them all a hundred times. So Brendan has purchased his card in town. It came in its own padded box.
At Katrina’s checkout, Brendan hands over the shrunken tree and two twenties. ‘For my honey bear.’
‘Kind of takes the edge off, when I’m forced to serve you,’ she says.
He hadn’t thought it through. She takes his money anyway, leans across the counter to muss his hair and coochie-coo to the tree. Weeks later, she’d be singeing its tiny leaves.
When Brendan mentions his mistake, his mother doesn’t hold back, saying, it’s all about her with that one – never having met the her in question.
Jealous, says Katrina when he repeats the conversation.
Before Katrina – it was all about his mother.
Abandoned, is what Brendan’s mother calls it when she tells the story of his father’s departure. His parting gift; a signed football shirt, draped over Brendan in his cot. Stupid man could have smothered him – still, she’d hung on to it because autographs were worth good money. Brendan, eight or nine when he discovered it in her wardrobe, pulled it over his head; his right arm in a sling at the time, he’d mimicked his mother because, in the mirror, it looked like he had boobs. When he begged, she allowed him to keep it – but with the promise he was never to wear it again. It was collateral, she said. He never knew when he might need it. He’d pretended to understand.
Brendan delivers mattresses. The day he met Katrina was filthy with rain; polythene sliding from his grip. The council had the road up outside her house, so he and Geoff dodged an obstacle course after they’d parked five doors down. Geoff, with a cob on, went straight back to the van, leaving Brendan with the paperwork. As she signed, she called him sweetheart in a syrupy voice. Her social life was non-existent, sweetheart, now her flatmate had moved out – waves of honey hair down the back of her fluffy dressing gown, candyfloss toenails through peep-toe slippers. He wasn’t sure how the conversation had turned to anyone’s social life, when all he’d done was nod. Back in the van, Brendan chucked the clipboard on the dash, swinging the grinning gonk.
‘Hang on –’ Geoff grabbed the despatch note. ‘What you been up to?’
Geoff held up the clipboard, made it dance. Next to her phone number, Katrina had drawn a smiley face. ‘You’ve scored there, mate!’ He scrawled the number on the back of Brendan’s hand.
Until that point, Brendan had only experienced two dates. Both disasters. All the stuff in his head he’d planned to say never quite made it to his tongue, even when he’d written conversation topics on his palm in small writing, like his mother told him: work, hobbies, music. But the biro had smudged as he’d clenched and unclenched in his pocket, trying to look relaxed.
Brendan stared at Katrina’s number.
Third one’s a charm, his mother always said.
His mother out at her Pilates, he rang.
‘I don’t buy from nuisance callers,’ barked the voice at the other end.
‘But I’m not a –’
‘Not a nuisance? Could have fooled me.’
‘I delivered a mattress.’
The voice melted to more like he remembered. ‘Ahh, that’s your name is it? Brendan.’
‘Brendan Fitch,’ he answered, as if a school teacher was asking.
‘What can I do for you, Brendan Fitch?’
He thought she’d guess. Geoff said it was what she wanted. ‘Well, since you don’t have a social life…I mean…I wondered if you’d like to –’
‘You asking me out, Brendan?’
‘Well, aren’t you the fast worker?’
He’d never been called fast before.
‘Cat got your tongue, Brendan?’
‘Pictures,’ he splurted. ‘James Bond.’
‘How could I refuse such a gallant proposal?’
Was he supposed to answer?
She suggested a drink beforehand.
He guessed not.
Katrina preferred Kat, she said as she gently clawed his arm; sweet as a kitten.
The conversation on that first date was all her ex-flatmate’s fault. The deserter, Kat called her, ticked off at being left to pay double rent. Kat said, ‘She was a big girl. Not my words, it’s how she’d describe herself, but now she’s not around to absorb it, it’s like there’s an echo in the flat. Without her stuff I mean; now all her clutter’s gone. Makes me think a person can have too much space. Don’t you think a person can have too much space, Brendan?’
Brendan, mouth undone; nodded. Kat understood that Brendan preferred to be fed the answers.
‘Can’t say I miss the hair dye stains in the bathroom, or watching her eat peaches from the tin with her fingers. Suppose I miss her and I don’t, if you know what I mean?’
Again, Brendan agreed.
‘And her friends were a nightmare,’ said Kat. ‘Dragging me to bars every night, because I couldn’t say no, could I? It would have created such an atmosphere.’
Before – he’d got the impression this was what she missed. He must have got it wrong.
‘I’ve blitzed her room; paint, carpet, bed,’ she patted his knee. ‘All ready for the next one.’
In the cinema he bought her popcorn. Kat nestled the bucket in his lap, her head in the warm cradle of his shoulder. Brendan hugged her arm like a koala clings to a tree.
Nine days later Kat suggested he become her new tenant. Have the spare room as his own, but share her bed.
His mother advised he take his time; wait.
Kat was offended.
Brendan moved in.
A Saturday afternoon. Kat’s at work, but Brendan isn’t to lie in bed all day. He lays washing over the radiators; flat, no bunching. Blouses on hangers, but not hooked over the doors as it makes dinks in the woodwork. When Kat comes home, she’s irritated with his attempts.
Creased, puckered. No fabric softener.
Or is she upset? He can’t always tell the difference. She told him in bed once – ciggie between her fingers as she tickled his hairless chest – that people only get upset because they care.
Brendan moves in for a hug. Kat pushes him away, sends him out for pizza and the pink wine she prefers. When he returns, she says it would teach him a lesson if she poured it down the sink. The exact lesson she wants to teach him, Brendan doesn’t understand. He slides the bottle behind his back. Kat pounces. In the confusion of what he should do or say next, it almost slips to the floor.
‘Joke!’ She yanks it from him. ‘Honestly Brendan, sometimes you have no sense of humour.’
Two glasses later, she kisses him to show they’re okay. Brendan’s lips are extra careful.
Volatile his mother said with her spitty face the first time Brendan mentioned Kat upset.
When he asked her what it meant, Kat repeated; jealous.
Three days before bank holiday. Brendan has offered to work, assuming double time will please her, but Kat insists he’s selfish; prefers money to her company.
‘The one weekend I get time off and you have to ruin it,’ she says. ‘Can’t make a decision to save your life any other time, but as soon as it effects my happiness, you’re straight in there with the answer.’
He’d only wanted to make her happy.
Stomp of purple cowboy boots against laminate floor as Kat restlessly prowls the kitchen. This is her flat. What she wants should count for something.
Brendan supposes that’s right.
Down she crashes into a chair, thudding both heels into the floor.
Brendan goes to sit opposite. Awaits instruction.
Kat raises her hand.
A sign of peace? All is forgiven? He can’t be sure.
She flat slaps the table.
Brendan springs to his feet. For a second or two he’s skewed and confused, wonders how he got there. Then.
An urge to speak up.
Like the words he’s always searched for have slap-bounced from the table on to his vocabulary-toting-warrior tongue. He feels an aura of University Challenge, like he could debate the hind legs off any quarrel she cares to throw his way.
‘I always do what you want.’
Kat’s eyes flare.
That’s stumped her. Kat’s got her own tongue now! Listen up my little honey bear. Crank your ear to what I have to say.
Brendan opens his mouth. Confident there’ll be more.
The space where, for a split second, there was light and sense and words, has once again murked with a familiar fog. His adrenalin rush has cruelly rushed elsewhere.
A queer smile creeps to Kat’s lips. Not a smile at all.
A quiver in his bladder.
His words hang between them like more damp washing. If only he could scoop them up in his guppy fish mouth. Gulp. Gone. Never happened. Instead, Brendan senses the approach of an army on quick march.
‘Sorry?’ Kat cups her ear. ‘What did you say?’
Brendan has no answer.
Kat, done waiting, says, ‘As I understand your complaint,’ slow and deliberate, as if speaking to a toddler, ‘poor little Brendan – who doesn’t possess a single brain cell – who is forever asking my opinion, who can’t count to twelve without using my fingers as well as his own; always does what I want?’
A silent squirm from Brendan.
‘Can’t hear you, Brendan.’
Her prod forces him to speak.
‘Don’t be like –’
‘Oh, so you’re telling me now?’
‘No, I just –’
‘What, mummy’s boy?’
Brendan aches for honey bear Kat, but hasn’t a clue how to reach her. She snatches her tin of Golden Virginia, sprinkles a pinch on a cigarette paper and rolls; lights up. A sharp suck through tight teeth. ‘You know Brendan; you say you love me…’
She picks a twitch of tobacco from her bottom lip.
‘Well, I’m not so sure.’ She flicks ash on the Bonsai in the middle of the table. ‘I know I can’t make you love me, Brendan.’
‘You don’t have to.’
‘That’s not how it sounds.’ More ash on his valentine gift. ‘If you always do what I want,’ she says putting air quotes around his words, ‘that means you never have a choice.’
Brendan wasn’t sure he’d meant it quite like that.
Kat idly flips the lid of her lighter.
She hovers the flame under the miniature tree. One tiny leaf turns to cinder.
‘Don’t,’ he says.
‘You can’t stop me.’
‘I thought you loved it.’
‘I thought you loved me.’
Hadn’t he just said he did?
Another leaf blackens and crumbles.
‘I do. I do. I do.’
Kat puts down the lighter. ‘What concerns me, Brendan,’ she says, her eyes as if scared to meet his, ‘is history repeating itself. Like father like son. You could leave me,’ she snaps her fingers. ‘Just. Like. That.’
‘But I’m not like him.’
‘You were a baby. You have no idea.’
Brendan wills his brain to give him the right thing to say, but the tears come first. Like when his mother used to scold him for his own good.
‘Now you’re crying, like I’m being unfair,’ says Kat. ‘All I’m asking for is a little proof.’
As soon as she says the word, he finally understands what his mother meant.
In Kat’s spare room, he pulls out the football shirt from one of the two drawers he’s allowed to use for his clothes. It’s a Stoke City away strip. Yellow, with faded marker-pen signatures: Biggins, Cranson, Ellis. It would probably fit now, but because he’s never been allowed to wear it, he can’t quite bring himself to pull it over his head. Brendan lies on the mattress that first brought them together. He drapes the shirt over his chest, takes out his phone and snaps a selfie to create a memory of how he must have looked in his cot.
Back in the kitchen, he heads straight for the scissors. With awkward fingers, he tries, but can’t make them catch the material. He spreads the shirt on the counter top, tries again with two hands, but the shears will only chew. Brendan feels like a butterfly he saw on a tube train once; even with the doors wide open, it couldn’t fathom out how to escape.
Kat scrapes back her chair. Comes over. Puts a hand on his arm to make him stop.
‘Proof,’ he says, tears spotting the shirt. ‘This was going to be proof.’
Kat takes the football shirt.
Brendan’s arm flops to his side and the scissors scrape his leg. ‘Can’t get anything right,’ he says.
She strokes his cheek. ‘That’s because it needs teamwork.’
Brendan doesn’t get it.
With both hands, Kat pulls the shirt taut. ‘You need tension,’ she says. ‘Now try.’
The scissors glide through his father’s heroes. Two shreds of yellow on the kitchen floor.
His mother was right.
He believes that she’ll be pleased.
When she wants, Kat has a beautiful smile. This is the smile he’ll introduce to his mother. One day.
‘You’re my honey bear,’ says Brendan.
‘You absolutely sure?’ she says, in the voice she first called him sweetheart.
He nods. Wipes an eye on each sleeve.
As his lips reach hers, Brendan ignores the whiff of stale and grey.
L.A. Craig is published online and in anthologies, has been a finalist in various writing competitions and received a New Fiction Bursary from the Northern Writers’ Awards for her first children’s novel, Hosannas and Sleeping Bags. Her short story Flour Baby was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines. Her anthologies Jawbreakers, Scraps and An Earthless Melting Pot are available on Amazon. Find out more on her website http://lacraig.co.uk/ or Twitter @lac00000.