by Sharon Boyle

He swirls the drink, tilts the glass, swallows and winces. The whisky is rough.

Slopping round the house while Karen is at work is no fun. Come to think of it, Karen at home is no fun either. She barely speaks except to offer unpleasantries. Where has the sassy chat gone? Where is the punkiness of their schooldays? He remembers the time she’d waylaid him in the corridor with a smile that bordered on a sneer.

‘The laser treatment no worked then?’ She’d stood square in front of him. ‘You can still make out your birthmark grand.’ Then she had the nerve to ask if he was going to the graduation ball.

He’d glared at this Karen creature, whose reputation was far from faultless but was not as fearsome as his own. ‘Naw. I’m no a freak show.’

‘In that case, I’ll no bother asking you then, seeing as you’re so sensitive.’ She jaunted off, leaving him blinking.

He refills his glass, remembering how drunk he got the night of the ball, roaring teenage frustration to his bedroom walls. He’s still as useless, sitting here at the kitchen table when he should be out finding a job.

You’re a waste of space, Jamie.

He jerks up, the glass skiting out his hand. ‘Whit?’ he stammers.

That’s why this wifie isnae bothering with sassy chats.

It’s Karen’s voice—birling in his head as clear as spring water.

He takes another slug. ‘Okay, Karen lass, if this is how we speak, fair enough.’ He smiles. ‘I was just thinking how you chased me at school.’

Chased you? Your arse.

‘Oh, aye. You asked me to the ball. Okay I didn’t go but then you accosted me a few weeks later on the High Street.’

You were the one stalking me, pal.

‘I could tell you wanted me to ask you out.’

That you did, after havering rubbish for ten minutes.

‘You said, “Why not?” and I replied, “You’re no put off out by ma wee imperfection?” and you said, “It’s kinda cool. Let’s have sex.”’

You lurched like a scalded dug when I put my palm against your cheek. You pipsqueaked out “okay then” and let yourself be led back to mine

Present-day Jamie grins. It had been his first time on the fornication front and he wasn’t convinced he enjoyed it. There was awkward disrobing, smells and penis presentation. Karen had stared at his nakedness, till he said, ‘I’m no posing here for ma own good. Are you up for it or no?’

‘Your prick looks blotch free.’

‘You think it should match ma face?’ Indignation had been roused.

He tips the dregs of the bottle into his glass. ‘A boy’s penis, Karen, is his pride and joy, but Christ, he disnae want to be outshone by it. But at least you liked me then. You used to call me My Jamie.’

Aye, on the days you wereny like cling-film with a temper.

Jeezo. It’s bad enough the real Karen having a go about his moods but now Imaginary Karen is at it too.

‘You’d go mental if all folk saw in you was this.’ He jabs his birthmark. Huge and flaming on his cheek, it’s the shape of a distorted swastika. ‘Do you think I like carrying this around with me? Chrissake, some folks think I got it tattooed special.’ He stands, stumbling against the chair. ‘Where are you anyway?’

Im right here.

‘Naw, no you, the real Karen.’

It’s midday; she is due to return for lunch but perhaps she’s stopped at Ferdie’s for a quick drink, trying to forget she has a scarred and jobless husband at home.

He’ll join her.

He makes to leave but stutters as movement out the window catches his eye. Jesus Christ, there she is in the street, fag pranging from her gob and lighting one for Red Eck. Lighter pocketed, she’s about to continue on her journey home but Red Eck says something that encourages her to laugh and, after a half-turn back to the house, hook his elbow. They head in the direction of Ferdie’s.

Jamie gulps several times before swinging round to take in the kitchen, his eyes stopping at the knife block. Heart drubbing, he slides out a knife and rubs a thumb over the serrated blade. Drink dulled, he sets the blade at the top of his birthmark and digs in, wincing at the spill of blood. Determined, he begins to saw. His nerves sing and with a sob he throws the knife across the room. He grabs his glass, squeezing it in his fist with a great, furious strength. A scream, hushed and strangled, gargles at the back of his throat. The glass implodes, the edges cutting his palms. He takes one of the shards and attacks his face.

‘Look, what you made me do!’ he weeps, thrashing to the door, spraying blood to the hall’s four corners. Out to the tenement landing, he hammers down the steps. ‘In sickness and in health, you promised!’

Who believes in that tripe, you bampot? Anyway, you know Ive a fancy for gingers.

He’s gasping now, jogging along the street, catching blurred faces and sliced-off chatter, till he bangs through the swing door of Ferdie’s.

‘I’ll cream you,’ he yells at Karen who sits centre stage at the bar, removing an arm from Red Eck’s shoulder.

Ferdinand, the landlord, unhooks a baseball bat from the ledge above. ‘Right, Jamie, I’ll have no trouble here.’

Jamie regards Ferdinand for a moment before launching himself forward, not caring who he batters first.

***

Faint wisps of sound. His name – not Jamie, or even Fiery Jamie, but Mr Balfour. The sensation someone is leaning over him. A gradual rise to the light. But he cannot speak; he cannot move. He is just aware.

***

When he returns home from hospital, he sits in his chair by the window and waits for Karen.

At last. The scrape of a key against the lock, the drop of a coat on the hall floor and the scuff into the kitchen.

‘Fags, fags, fags,’ Karen mutters. Half-bent to a cupboard, she stops. ‘Jesus.’

‘Naw, just Jamie.’

She straightens. ‘When did they let you out?’

‘When did you last come to see me?’

She thinks. ‘Two, three days ago. You were coma deep with a no-return ticket.’

‘It was five days ago.’

‘Nurses said you wouldnae recover.’

A shuffle, an audible yawn and a boot of the door heralds the entrance of Red Eck doing up his belt. ‘Thought I heard you, hen…Christ, Jamie. When’d you get out?’ He stops mid-buckle and addresses Karen. ‘I thought you said he was brain dead. I suppose Ferdinand won’t go down for murder now.’ He faces Jamie. ‘Feeling better?’

‘Just dandy, Eck. It’s no often I get banjoed by one eejit and arrive home to discover another in ma bed.’

There is silence as the triangle of awkwardness considers how best to handle the situation.

‘Want a drink, Jamie?’ Karen says.

‘Better no. The nurses’ll be wondering where I am.’

‘You’ve gone awol?’ Red Eck. 

‘Aye.’ Jamie nods at Karen. ‘Come see me the morn.’

The next day Karen visits.

‘Why is he still strapped to that machine?’ Jamie hears her ask.

‘He’s never been off it,’ says the nurse.

‘What? He brought himself home yesterday.’

‘Just look at him, Mrs Balfour. He’s never left that bed.’

Jamie can imagine the stares between the two women in the quiet that follows.

That evening he comes home again. ‘Just to say thanks for coming to see me.’

Karen holds up a finger and retreats to the phone. With eyes on Jamie her voice cracks as she demands the nurse check the whereabouts of her husband. ‘I don’t care if he’s hooked up and going nowhere, just go and have a look.’

After a few minutes Karen swallows. ‘He cannae be there, because he’s here.’ A pause. ‘I know my own husband. You cannae mistake that birthmark for anything.’ She puts down the phone. ‘She says you’re there, in the ward. You don’t have a twin you huvnae told me about?’

‘Two Jamies? With two swastikas?’ Jamie grins. ‘Where’s Red Eck?’

‘Gone.’

‘You and me back on then?’

‘Naw, naw, this cannae be happening.’ Karen gives a jittery laugh. ‘I need a fag. What about you?’

‘I’m in intensive care, so no.’

‘Right.’ She lights a cigarette and when she turns back Jamie is gone.

His visits are regular, every second or third day. ‘Depending if the old mind is up to travelling or not.’

Karen proves a poor hostess: grudged looks and forced chit-chat.

‘Blood out of a stone,’ complains Jamie. ‘And I think you should visit more.’

‘I don’t need to. I cannae get away from you.’

‘And while you’re at it, get the doctors to remove my birthmark.’

‘Aye. Okay.’ Karen stops swaying enough to pour a drink.

‘Can you no stay sober for me?’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’ grits Karen. ‘It’s you who’s driving me to drink. Nurse Ratched thinks I’m bloody cuckoo. Nobody believes me. Eck thinks you really were out for the day and refuses to come to the infirmary to learn otherwise.’ She takes a swig. ‘Why didn’t you do your disappearing act when he was here?’

‘I’m no showing him my parlour tricks. Look, I’m no bothered if you have sex with him, but,’ Jamie leans forward, ‘give me your attention.’

Karen squints. ‘I’m away to bed.’

‘Likewise.’

Karen says goodnight but the chair is already empty.

***

Jamie sighs and angles away from the window. ‘It’s blowing a hoolie out there. Nice and cosy in here though.’

Karen is cooking, the smell of garlic fills the room. ‘Do you think you’ll ever come out your coma?’

‘Don’t know, but I’d certainly recommend it as a stress reliever.’

‘Apart from not knowing when the doctors’ll pull the plug.’

‘My, Karen, you should go hospital visiting with that lovely bedside manner. Oh, I forgot, you don’t.’

Karen catches Jamie’s smile. ‘I did visit,’ she whispers. ‘I asked them to remove your birthmark, remember?’

‘Aye, they didnae think it worth their while.’

Karen lowers her eyes. ‘I’ll come the morn. You weren’t doing so well last time.’

***

‘You didn’t come.’ Jamie holds up his hands. ‘It’s okay, I know you hate that room.’

‘I did visit. Don’t you mind me yapping on about your mother doing ma head in?’

Jamie shakes his head. ‘Naw.’ Silence, then, ‘D’you know, I prefer this. Us being all calm and sensible. We should have talked more sensibly before, eh?’

‘Let’s see.’ Karen pours a wine. ‘Two volatile head-cases sparking off one another, one now subdued by a life support machine and the other by visits from her not-really-there husband.’ Her smile changes to a shrug before she covers her face and blurts, ‘You’re dying, Jamie.’

***

Four o’clock is the time registered on the form when Jamie Balfour’s life support machine is switched off.

Four o’clock at the Balfour residence and Jamie is sitting by the window, appreciating Karen’s drama as she pours a fifth glass.

‘I cannae drink it fast enough,’ she whispers, glancing at the clock. ‘You’re unplugged now. Do you think your mind will float free?’

‘Nae idea.’

‘Will you still visit?’ She puts a trembling hand to her mouth.

A smile shimmies on Jamie’s lips. ‘The last time anyone cried over me was my ma, on the day I was born. Dry your tears, Karen doll.’

Karen drops her hand to reveal a nervy smile. Her face slackens as she rushes forward to place her head against his chest and her palm fully on his birthmark, feeling for the heat of it.

But there is no heat. She looks up. Her Jamie is gone.

oOo

Sharon Boyle has been published online and in magazines and anthologies including Reflex Fiction, Retreat West, Ellipsis Zine and Writers’ Forum. As well as shorties and flash she writes YA novels. She is suspicious of people who exercise. She tweets as @SharonBoyle50