The Person who Serves, Serves Again
Winner of the 2020 Costa Short Story Award
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[...]I’m usually the one doing the waiting but today, despite all my efforts, I’m late. I scan the concrete forecourt of the sports centre: my view of the doors is impeded by the body of a middle-aged man in an overcoat limping heavily this way and that as he chats and gesticulates into his mobile.
Then the man turns and of course it’s him. And of course there is no mobile. Bryn’s eyes light up. He stubs out his cigarette with tender ceremony and lumbers up to greet me. His face as it comes into focus is all crags and troughs. Deeper, more calcified than when I last saw him. His eyes peer through this stone curtain, tiny and lost.
‘Yeh, right, you’re here. Are you the sporty type, I thought you might be, you probably do sport a lot.”
After all these years I’m slow to get with it, to work out who I am in this conversation, which role I’m playing in the unreeling film inside him.
“Come a long way, have you. Live a long way from here, do you.”
I lie on instinct: I don’t want him hurling himself against my door in the middle of the night. His eyes flicker uncertainly as I talk vaguely of faraway boroughs, unfamiliar streets. And I realise that all he wants to do is impart bus advice. Shame twinges in me: I’ve robbed him even of that pleasure.
“Still, you’re here, right.”
I agree, not at all sure where I stand on this. He nods, satisfied, and we turn towards the sports centre foyer wherean inflatable crocodile flops in the breeze, wearing Speedos to invite or perhaps menace the kids into the pool.
He’s limping less now, listing less heavily to the left anyhow. It’s pride I’m sensing, the pride of a man being seen leading a woman througha door. And I realise who I am: I’m the stand-in girlfriend, the one he’s never had.
Bryn lights up again before we reach the sliding doors to the foyer. I stifle some sensible suggestion and hang back to wait it out. Bryn smokes an unheard-of brand in a navy blue livery – Carlton or Capitan or something. He’s been loyal to them forever. I remember the dusty packs crushed under his teenage bed whenever I shoved an arm in there to yank out the cat. He’d have locked it in his room to torture it, and the untouched bowl of Felix in the kitchen would have alerted me. It’s a testament to a cat’s short attention span that Bryn was the only one of us it really liked. Or perhaps the cat was brain-damaged by then. Whatever Bryn did to it – and I’d decided not to know – it was instantly forgotten.
Now he inhales deeply with head bent aside -an urgent, intimate gesture I feel odd about watching.
“I get the jitters,” he’s saying. “Heart palpitations, it’s maybe a panic attack, it’s side effects, they should bring the medication down, I tell them but they won’t. They say it’s this stuff, all the caffeine.”
I notice for the first time that he’s carrying a huge plastic torpedo of Coke Zero under his arm.
“It’s pretty high in caffeine,” I agree. “And acid. And saccharine.”
But his teeth are fine, always have been. I run my tongue over the fuzzy, chipped surfaces of my own.
“Addictive personality,” he says proudly. “Addicted to caffeine. Two of these a day I get through, two or three. I like the taste. It’s better thanPepsi Max. It’s just the palpitations, the panic attacks.”
He coughs, hollow and far away, a dog barking at the bottom of a canyon. And when he’s finished with that we go in.[...]
© tessa sheridan