I got quite good feedback from my last short story, so I'm going to have another go at it. I hope this isn't too obscure or odd!
'Come on, get off the computer. Here, your shirt, I just ironed it.'
I tear my gaze from the superficial, trivial events of Facebook to take the shirt. White. The Strokes is strangled out from the two tinny speakers on either side of the monitor. The office is cold (a converted garage with no insulation) making any internet endeavour a trial.The piano sags in the corner, yellowed keys still making promises of wonders it may no longer be able to keep. The mute pedal grinds and fails to deaden the harsh upper keys or the dull, groaning lower. The high A sticks unpredictably, making the flow of music over the high summits and low boggy valleys an unpredictable affair.
No time to play.
I pull off my t-shirt and button up the shirt, rolling the sleeves up to my elbows. Clicking out of every window on the screen, I pull on my leather jacket. Dark brown. I pause beside the piano, running a quick C major scale.
The A key sticks. The scale is interrupted.
Shaking my head in tired frustration, I shut the weary lid. There's a key in the lock. I leave it open, but pocket the key.
'Come on, come on, we're booked for 7.30.'
My mother is a natural born worrier. She's dressed in a long floral, shoulder strapped dress with a long black overcoat over it. My two little brothers lounge against the wall near the door. Will, the older of the two, is focussed on his phone. Jamie is likewise engrossed in the antics of his elder brother, much to Will's irritation.
'Oh Jesus, would you look at your shirt!' She exclaims. 'The collar, the collar!'
'Mom would you ever take it easy?' A new voice sighs.
My sister strides in, resplendent in a long red dress, gold sandals and a tight black jacket.
'Not bad, not bad Saz.' I grin. 'I don't feel really underdressed or anything now.'
'Oh come on, this dinner is (and it might sound a bit up my own arse) for me! I'm going away in a few days. Wouldn't you rather I looked good in your memory?'
'I can easily find a picture of where you looked like shit.'
My grin fades as he enters the kitchen. An oppressive weight of tension bears down on my shoulders. I feel ready to act; do whatever is necessary. Saz stiffens. My mother's lips purse. She walks rigidly, her heels clacking loudly in the small space as she clean spotless surfaces. Will stares at his phone until I think he's trying to make it levitate. Jamie looks up when he senses the change in atmosphere, his eyes widening in anxiety as he fears another crack in his crumbling stability.
Clack, clack, clack.
Don't draw attention to yourself Jay. If it has to be this way, let me handle it kid.
Clack, clack, clack.
I stare at Jamie, my eyes widening in meaning. He blessedly catches the hint and snaps his gaze downwards on to Will's phone again.
Clack, clack, clack.
And so we stand here.
Clack, clack, clack.
I can feel his stare, boring into me. A drop of sweat slides down my spine.
Clack, clack, clack.
I drag my gaze upwards. Like a dog who's prey has finally started to flee, a look of triumph enters his eyes. His mouth twists into a sneer as he opens it-
The whisper of pumps on tiles interupts the stand-off.
My oldest sister. Shauna.
'Right, are we ready to go?' She says brightly, unaware of the swamp she dived into.
'Yes.' He replies softly, still staring at me from his pale blue eyes.
Turning, he walks out of the kitchen and out the front door to the car. We hear an engine rev in to life.
I sag slightly, my heartbeat begins to decrease. Scanning the room, I can see similar reactions from everyone else. Except Shauna.
'What? What's wrong?' She's wearing a blue top, a skirt and black tights with a loose black cardigan.
Silence. Everyone glances fleetingly in my direction.
'Nothing.' Will says eventually. 'Just the usual shit.'
Shauna's expression darkens. She strides up to me.
'What? What did he do?' She demands.
I look over her shoulder.
She grabs my chin and forces me to look her in the eye.
'Tell me. What-did-he-do?'
I gaze unflinchingly into her brown eyes, eyes so like our mother's.
She begins to frown, worry and concern now painting her features.
'Nothing.' I say calmly. 'Just the usual shit.'
She lets go of me, appearing unconvinced. It doesn't matter to me. I don't have to explain.
'Ok, we'd better get a move on now. We're going to be late.'
'Yes.' I reply.
Will retrieves his brown jacket. It's leather also, but not as dark as mine. Saz puts Jamie's sandy coloured jumper on him.
It's time to go.
Standing tall, I walk out of the kitchen and through the front door.
The rest of my family follows.
The car is a five seater, meaning that I end up with Jamie on my lap, Will on Saz's and Shauna in the middle. My mother is in the front passenger seat.
I pull the seat belt awkwardly around me and Jamie. I get frustrated and pull too hard. It catches and I have to let it go. I pull again. It catches. It clicks back in. I pull agonisingly slowly until I can put the end into the buckle.
We move off.
I rest my head on my little brother's back. He holds my hand tightly. Glancing over, I can see Shauna looking sightlessly out the window. Will is trying to text while Saz is looking over his shoulder.
Ever the protective big sister Saz is.
My mother is speaking with him up front. I am seated behind him. I can only see the edges of his black suit. His replies are soft, but have an undercurrent of dangerous strength like a sword sheathed in silk.
We arrive at the restaurant.
We are shown to our table. I sit in the corner. I can see everything this way. Him and my family take off their coats and jackets.
I keep mine on.
'What're you going to have for your starter?' Saz asks. 'I might have the bruschetta.'
'I think I'll have the soup.' I reply.
The waitress arrives. We place our orders.
'Ok so that's two garlic breads, three bruschettas and two soups?' She says.
'Yes. Thank you.' He says.
'We're very busy tonight, so I wont be able to take your orders for your main course until you have your starters. A large party is leaving soon, so that will free us up. It'll be brought to you as quickly as possible.'
He stares at her for a moment.
We all look on from behind a pane of glass.
The waitress' fitted smile begins to slip.
'That will be fine.' He says.
The waitress blinks and leaves.
'You didn't order us any drinks.' My mother says.
'I might when we recieve our starters.' He replies quietly.
I look over. His glass is half full of clear, transparent liquid. It looks like water.
The waitress returns and gives us our pitcher of water and bread basket. She glances at him and hurries away.
He sips at his drink without a grimace.
I pour myself a glass of water, recieving a few ice cubes. I pour a glass for Jamie, making sure he gets the lemon slice. He smiles at me.
Cameras are released to snap and flash unsuspecting victims. I rearrange my features for what I can only hope is a generic pose with Saz. I don't do natural very well.
'Here look!' She says, jamming the digital screen under my nose. 'You look handsome, doesn't he Shauna?'
'Ah he does.' She says smiling. 'That shirt really suits you. Doesn't it Will?'
I wince inwardly.
'Yeah I suppose' He says, glancing up briefly from his phone.
'You'd know they were the good looking pair in the family from looking at this wouldn't you mom?' Shauna says elbowing Mother.
'I love ye all the same, ye're all beautiful to me since the day I first laid eyes on ye.' Mother says patting Shauna's arm and giving Jamie a one-armed hug.
Oh great, it's going to be one of those family occasions.
'Take a photo of me and Jamie!' Shauna says.
I recieve the camera and hold it up, making the appropriate noises and movements.
I hand it back to a chorus of 'Awww'.
I lean against the wall. I take a drink of water.
He has a sip of his water. He doesn't grimace.
The starters arrive.
'Fuck me, I didn't think there'd be so much tomato on this thing.' Saz exclaimed.
'Era now, a bit of tomato never harmed anyone.' Shauna says with a grin.
'Ah yeah I know, but look at that!'
I recieve my soup. I taste it. It's good. A bit spicy, but good.
I cast a glance around the table, Will and Jamie are munching through their garlic bread, Mother and Shauna are lacing into their bruschetta with enthusiasm and He....
He's sipping his soup quietly.
'Is the soup good?' Mother asks me and Him.
'Uh yeah I suppose its....'
'Yes, it's very good.' He cuts through like a razor blade.
I look down at my bowl. It's empty.
Five minutes later, the waitress returns.
'Now here are the menus again.' She says with strained cheer.
Ok, I get that He's somewhat intimidating at times, but what's wrong with her? He's not that bad
She glances at me for a moment and looks away.
Wait, she looks nervous around me also. What did I do?
I order last this time, watching everyone else's orders closely.
'Ok that's two margherita pizzas, one lasagna, one spicy sausage with pasta, two chickens with pesto and...' She faltered. 'For you sir?'
Trying my best friendly expression, I consult the menu and reply 'The margherita pizza for me also.'
She writes my order down with a slight shake to her hand.
'A-and to drink?'
He looks at each of us in turn.
'Coke.' Will says into his screen.
'Coke!' Jamie chirps.
'Coke.' Saz says.
'White wine.' Shauna says to her menu.
'Red wine.' Mother says to Him.
'Orange.' I mutter.
'I will have orange also.' He says.
Time begins to drag. Frivolities become the staple of conversation. I only have to nod, or murmur assent. I begin to drift off into thought. I begin to think of that waitress.
What was wrong with her?
The drinks arrive. I can barely stomach my fizzy orange. Will and Jamie have no such inhibitions.
'Take it easy!' Mother exclaims.'Ye'll eat nothing if ye fill ye'reselves up with that.'
He takes a large gulp out of his orange.
The women sip their drinks.
The main course arrives.
'Here you are, one sausage and pasta and two pizzas. Hold on a moment, and I'll bring the rest of your food.' She says.
The sausage and pasta looked good. The pizzas did not.
Returning a moment later, she looks pale and nervous.
'A lasagna, two chicken and pesto and.... A-and I'm afraid there's been a problem with our pizza ovens sir.' She says to me.
'What do you mean?' I ask.
Jesus, I'm not holding a knife to her throat, what's the matter with her?
'I do not know the exact details, but after these two pizzas, the ovens switched off and can't be switched back on. I'm afraid' She falters. 'I'm afraid, you will have to order something else.'
I scrutinise her for a moment, trying to discern what's wrong with her.
Realising everyone is looking at me, I scan the table quickly. The pizzas look rubbery, the smell of the chicken is turning my stomach and I have lasagna at least once a week at home. That leaves.....
'The sausage and pasta please.' I say, returning the menu to her.
'No problem sir.' she replies with an obvious look of relief on her face.
I look around the table, wondering if anyone else has noticed her peculiar behaviour.
They all avert their eyes. No, not all.
He is looking at me, his glass of orange now full again, but his other drink empty.
Ok, that's it, I'm getting to the bottom of this.
Mumbling something about the toilet, I rise and follow the waitress to the door marked 'Toilets'. I'd noticed all the waitresses and waiters had gone back here, so the kitchen had to be there.
Sure enough after immediately turning left, the first door on the right has the sounds and smells of a busy kitchen. Across from it is marked 'Gents' and next to it 'Ladies'.
The waitress goes into the kitchen, but returns a moment later with another waitress. I dive around the corner. Luckily, her back is to me.
'Oh God, I need a fag after that, come on.' She says, pulling her friend after her.
They go to the end of the corridor and out, pushing a barrel of gas against the door to keep it open.
I sneak up to the door.
'-the matter with you?' the second waitress asks.
I hear heavy inhalation for several moments until a ragged reply.
'It's the table I'm serving. They creep the hell out of me.'
'What? Why? It's a family isn't it? Have they been rude?' She asks confusedly.
Have they threatened you or something?'
'Have they touched you or hit you?'
'No! No it's...' She hesitates. 'It's the two....Men I suppose you'd call them, although one couldn't be more than eighteen. The other's middle-aged and is dressed all in black.'
'But what have they done? What have they said?' The second waitress says, sounding impatient.
'They've ordered their food and have been polite, even when the younger man had to change his order over the pizza oven fuck up.'
'Then what is it? Spit it out!'
'It's....the way they look at me.' She says softly, unease edging her words.
'Wh-what?' the other replied sounding amused.
'Don't laugh! First it was just the older one when I told him about the backlog of orders, but when I asked the younger one (I think he's his son) his order he.... he had the exact same look in his eyes.' She shivers. It's twenty degrees celsius.
A look? Wait no.... No no no.
'What's so weird about this 'look'?' the other waitress presses.
'It's like' she takes an unsteady pull 'It's like they can look right into you, and can see how to take you apart. It's not like looking at a person!'
'Like a robot or something?' the other asks, all traces of hilarity having exited her voice.
'Yeah. Exactly like that. They don't look like they have feelings. Totally cold.'
'Wow that's....that's weird.'
No no not me too!
'And I'm stuck serving them until they go!'
'Ouch. I could serve them instead for you?'
'No no, George would notice and besides, I wouldn't push this on anyone. Not even Lucy. Bitch.' she adds venomously.
'And.... What about the rest of the family?'
'They're fine, a bit mental, but fine. That teenager... He's so.... It's just wrong to see that look in such a young person. It makes it worse that the father somehow.'
I can't be.... I can't be like him! Is this why I can't hold down friends? Why I can't get a job? Because I'm dead inside? Because I scare people?
Stumbling back to the toilets, I push in the door. I go to the sink, running the tap. Splashing water on my face, I look up slowly in to the mirror.
My face. My cheeks. My mouth. My nose. My eyes.
Why can't I see it? Why can't I see what is scaring people?
Then another thought strikes me.
My family. Have I been terrifying them also for years?
Running my hands through my hair, I try to find some form of answer.
I can't find anything.
Banging my fist on the sink, I stand upright and jerk the door open vioently...
To find the two waitresses in front of it.
Both flinch, one darting off with a quick 'Excuse me sir' and the other regarding me for a moment before hurrying away.
'Jesus what happened to you in the toilet?' Saz asked.
'What do you mean?'
'Your hair! It's standing up all over the place. Come here.'
I sit down again and allow Saz to flatten my hair. Everyone is in the middle of their food. Jamie has managed to get more tomato sauce on his face than in his mouth and Will is texting with one hand and chewing on a slice that looks as rubbery as I suspected. Over half of Saz's lasagna is gone. Mother is slicing and chewing her chicken delicately, unaware of the slight fleck of sauce on her cheek. Shauna has abandoned all decorum and is eating like it's her last meal.
He's quietly, methodically, cutting and chewing,
'Would you ever take off that jacket? You must be roasting! We're inside and besides, you look well in that shirt. That colour really suits you.' Saz says with a smile.
'I-I don't know...'
'Ah go on!'
I unzip my leather jacket, throwing it over the back of the chair.
My sausage and pasta arrived then.
'There you go sir.' the waitress said without looking at me. 'I apologise for the delay.'
'It's fine.' I say quietly.
She hurries away.
The sausage and pasta looks good.
It tastes good.
I take my time and finish just after the rest. There's nothing left on my plate.
'Right, well, that chicken was beautiful. Did you all enjoy your food?' Mother asks.
'Yeah.' my siblings chorus.
'Well that's good then, we just need the bill now.' She turns to me. 'Would you mind going up to the counter and asking for it?'
Great, more waitresses to terrorize.
'I don't think-'
A single word, softly spoken, yet my spine stiffens. His eyes fix me to the spot.
I rise and walk reluctantly to the counter. My favourite waitresses are there.
Their eyes widen at my approach.
'Yes s-sir?' the second one stutters.
'Could I have the bill for table five please?'
'Yes of course, no problem.' she replies, flustered.
The other is studying me. She flinches when I meet her eyes.
I take the small leather book and return.
'Here.' I place the book on the table.
The bill is paid for, we put on our jackets and we leave.
We load in to the car again. We drive home in silence.
I return to the office, tossing my jacket on the office swivel chair. I lift the piano lid. The keys look sickly. I try to play. The A key sticks again.
How can one key affect so much? One problem, causes a ripple effect.
I catch my gaze in the varnished reflection. I close the lid and walk to the sitting room. Jamie and Will have gone to bed. Saz, Shauna and Mother have changed into pajamas. He's still in his suit, with a large glass of amber liquid in his hand.
'Piano still giving you trouble?' Shauna asks.
'Yeah, that high A key is really important, I use it nearly everytime I play. '
'We'll get it fixed.' Mother says reassuringly.
'We tried that before. It was back to the way it was before within two weeks.'
'We'll try someone different this time.' she replies calmly.
Why won't she look at me?
I look around the room. It's so tense. It's like troops waiting before a battle.
The Waiting is always the worst by all accounts.
A contemptuous expression twists his face. Dead eyes stand like grey glass statues over it.
The Waiting ends. The war begins.
We fight valiantly. We fight bravely. But fighting with fists against slings and arrows will leave only one result. A full and decisive rout.
After an unbearable amount of time, he leaves to drink water with his own kind.
Or at least what he tells Jamie is water.
He leaves me with my broken family.
And I'm not crying.
Not one tear to shed, not one bubbling emotion to spill over.
I return to the office the next day and sit at the piano stool. I haven't changed my clothes since the night before. I run through a few pieces.
The door opens behind me.
He is still in his black suit.
'That doesn't sound bad.' he says, leaning against the worn upright.
I look up slowly.
'The A key ruins everything.'
'I find it hard to believe that one key could destroy everything.'
'Sometimes the smallest thing can do that.' I reply.
He frowns for a moment.
Then he looks me up and down.
'That shirt suits you. Black is really your colour.' he says with a shadow of a smile.
No not a smile. A sneer.
'You should wear it more often. It suits you even better than it suits me.' he continues.
But do I suit it?