Scott fumbled in the dark trying to hook his keys out of his hip pocket. ‘Argh, balls.’
‘Ah balls,’ chirped the three-year old at his elbow.
One hand hooked around a large predator, a polythene bladder of prey in the other; he cursed his luck on the coconut shy. ‘Hold this for me, Monkey.’ The giant funfair shark rolled over his arm, swallowing his son whole. ‘Got it?’
Wedging the bag of goldfish between his legs, he lifted the keys and stabbed at the lock. ‘Can’t see a goddamned thing.’
The key snapped into place.
‘Yes Jae, OK now.’ He shouldered open the winter-swollen door. Spider-leg fingers crawled in search of the light switch.
Click. Flash. Ting.
‘Oh great, the bloody trip.’
‘Jae, enough with the copying.’ He turned towards the shadows in the hallway.
‘Jae shush, I’m trying to listen.’
Listen to Nothing.
Scott breathed in slowly, then blew out a long sigh. ‘OK, she’s gone for a lie down. Again,’ he said to himself.
‘Is it bedtime, Daddy?’
‘No, not bedtime just yet,’ he said, his eyes starting to adjust. He cupped his hand around the dining room door frame and tried the light.
‘Sal? You there?’
Patting down the wall of the hallway, Scott felt for the lacquered wood of the telephone table and put down the fishbag. It wobbled and sloshed as he opened the draw and took out a pocket flashlight. Wringing its neck, he aimed the narrow beam towards the stairs. It barely reached the first step. He tried to twist it to flood. Jammed. Damn it.
The dining room door was open a slither. He crept towards it, not sure why he was creeping, and nudged it wider. The torch picked out Sally’s coat sat upright on the Chesterfield, draped around the shoulders of the invisible woman. Then flitting over the cast iron fireplace, the light flared off a studio portrait above it; him and Sally laughing in the background as a chubby-limbed Jae crawled towards the camera. He’d never liked the picture, flattering though it was. With its contrived pose and super-white backdrop, it was an overstatement of connubial bliss.
Scott continued to comb the scene. Sally’s yawning tote bag slouched on the dining table with some papers scattered next to it. He bent down and sniffed them. Parma violets; instantly taking him back to their Lake District holidays. It was the smell of their favourite mineral emporium where, years ago, he’d bought her a Tiger’s Eye ring; a placeholder for her wedding finger that still held its place today. He ran his fingertips over the paper and the indents made by Sally’s heavy-handed pen. No sign of an envelope. Maybe she’d popped out to the post box. He tried to ignore his palpitations.
Scott tilted the light up to the fuse box tucked between a mahogany bookcase and the crescent of the bay window. The torch blinked on and off as if sending for help. Cursing, he slapped it against his palm, knocking it out. It took three blows to bring it back round. He eased himself past the dining table and popped open the breaker casing. The master trip switch had dropped. It was stubborn as he pushed it back up.
A brief burst of light. Then darkness.
‘Odd… must be a fault,’ Scott said to no one. He made his way back to the foot of the stairs. Jae was treading water in the porch, swimming up and down with the shark.
‘Where’s my Mummy?’
‘Dunno Monkey. Hang on here.’ A splish-sploshing beside him made Scott turn. Two silver-green pinholes of light froze in his beam. The tabby was at full stretch, a paw teasing the circling shadows in the fishbag.
‘Psst. Norman. Ged-out-avit.’ Norman bolted past Jae’s grappling hands.
Scott stalked the sweep of the banister in a low squat like a vampire slayer. The grotesquery of the fair that evening must have got him spooked; he shook himself sensible. Squeezing the trigger on the baby gate, the boards creaked as he started to mount them.
‘Jae, just stay there for a moment,’ Scott said, half turning back towards his son who was boarding the first step. ‘Don’t copy Daddy. Stay there.’
He held his breath, a vague queasiness swashing in his belly, as his feet hesitated on every tread. Approaching the top step, Scott swept the landing with his search beam.
No movement. No sound. Nothing.
Shrunken floorboards yelped behind him. Scott spun around. Shark black eyes and a saw-toothed grimace.
‘Jesus. Jae, I told you to stay put,’ he said, steadying himself against the balustrade. ‘Fuck me.’
As Scott swooped the light round to his left it began to strobe again, rendering the scene in a series of flickering freeze-frames. The lower rungs of the loft ladder. The bedroom door part open. The foot of the bed. He slapped the torch across its face but it defied him.
‘Sal?’ He edged closer, jabbing the bedroom door. It stuttered open as if spinning through a magic lantern. ‘You in bed?’
Scott turned towards the en-suite. No tell-tale slit of light under the door. ‘You in the bathroom?’
The resinous odour of frazzled plastic teased his nostrils. He twitched. Feeling for the edge of the bed, Scott lowered himself onto it and stroked the flock-textured quilt. It felt gritty. He swallowed.
Something gently brushed the top of his head, dragging his long fringe over his eyes.
‘What the f—’ He tilted the torch upwards. It flared in the mirror above the bed as the thing stroked his head again.
‘What the fucking fuck?’ Scott threw up an arm, dropping the torch. He scoured the bed. Made contact. Grabbed it.
Only it wasn’t the torch. It was his Blackberry.
Scott prodded the phone for light.
Its cold glow reached his wife’s legs, gently swaying above him. She had dropped through the ceiling rose; the lightbulb mimicked her, hanging by a thin sinew of cable.
His blood drained. His guts hit his throat. He couldn’t bear to look, but couldn’t bring himself to look away. Then he turned the phone to face him. Its blue glimmer despondently divulged its secrets:
Scotty babe. Your staying power is legendary ;-) Must do it again soon.
‘Sally, no.’ Scott slid to the floor. ‘No, no, no.’
Do you smoke? Scott selected ‘No way’ from the drop down list in the Date with Fate profile builder, leant back in his swivel chair and pondered his thirty-a-day habit as a deep draw on his cigarette excited its tip. ‘Fuck it.’ He stubbed it out, ‘I can make it through a meal without a smoke.’
Your relationship status: Surveying the list of undesirable descriptors, he fixed on ‘Widowed’. His chest caved. Was he ready for this? He glanced at the goading message that his Uncle Roy had scribbled on the dating site flyer before he’d shoved it through Scott’s letter box: How about tempting fate, Scotty lad?
Blinking back a sting in his eyes, he reached for his tobacco and cajoled a pinch of it into a Rizla. He lit up. The comforting smell of smoked oak and the sear of the vapour on his throat gave him focus. ‘Divorced’.
Do you have children? ‘Yes, and they live with me always.’
Occupation: Fallen-from-grace farm estate boss. Small-time-haulage-firm logistics lackey. Cap-doffer to a shithead cousin. ‘Self-employed’.
Interests: Neither trapping small animals nor collecting prohibited knives were on the list. Glenn Close had given bunny boilers a bad name. ‘Watching movies’.
Ethnicity: White. (Celtic, northern and proud of it.)
Body type: Athletic and toned. (Skinny frigger. Smoke too much; eat shit all.)
Eyes: Blue. (Absence of colour; absence of light.)
Height: 5’ 11” (OK, 5’10”. Bit short. In fact I come up short in lots of respects, but another inch might make me a Bigger Man.)
Faith: None. (Neither ‘Catholic apostate’ nor ‘Lost all’ were offered.)
Drink: Social drinker. (Anti-social neurotic without a drink; oppositional egotist with one.)
Add a photo: Remember: Your fate is in your face!
Scott toked hard on his smoke. At forty-two, the heady combination of trauma, booze and fags can’t have been kind. He used to be told he was cute. Jared Leto had been mentioned more than once. By himself mostly.
He browsed through folder after folder of digital memories that he’d once taken care to sanitise; moving most of his pictures of Sally into a rarely ventured-to archive. Double clicking, scanning, hitting back, double clicking, scanning, hitting back, double clicking—
An arm’s length selfie stopped him cold; one that had escaped his purge. The three of them at a skewed angle, movement blurring the eventually-successful attempt at snapping baby Jae looking into the camera; laughter peeling their lips wide. Sally looked happy, vibrant. And their little man had a heart-bursting smile.
He hit close. It shut him down. What was he doing? The whole damned dating thing felt so contrived and desperate.
Nothing like the night he’d met Sal. He was twenty-six and trying to breathe life into the Rotary Club Yuletide party by hoovering enough speed to reanimate the dead. He’d spotted the slender silhouette of a lone drinker at the bar, nursing her complimentary Cava. Her brunette hair fell over petite shoulders, laid bare by a halter-neck dress that twinkled in the lights like a glitter ball. The gentle bumps of her spine guided his eye down to the sensual dip above her ass. Unconscious of any volition, Scott had slid up beside her like a ten-year-old on his knees at a wedding disco; his opening gambit an amphetamine-fuelled dose of verbal diarrhoea. Despite taking the rise out of her ‘Mickey Mouse’ film studies degree, the McCabe School of Charm had tempted her onto the dance floor.
He smiled inwardly as he recalled how smart she was. That she talked for Britain. That—being unversed in mania at the time—he’d thought she was whizzing too. And that her eyes were huge, beautiful, chocolate whirlpools that the Augustus Gloop in Scott had wanted to tumble into and never resurface.
From that night they were inseparable. Whether it was bracing endurance runs through the hoary patchwork of the Cheshire planes, marathon drinking sessions or chain-smoking weed, they had tested their own and each other’s limits. Just as Scott had laboured to adjust his naturally swift running pace to accommodate Sally, so she had struggled to train her sprinting thoughts to meet the stride of his.
Then after those first fervent weeks, Sally withdrew, failing to answer Scott’s calls or come to the door when he’d ventured over. He’d agonised over what he might have done; whether he had caused her sudden change of heart. Then one day she came calling. And when she did he’d scarcely recognised her. Conservative clothing masked a fuller figure, and her coffee-almond eyes were clouded and hooded. She was calmer, easier to be with in some ways, but less vital and alive. Scott was already caught on the line, though, and would stay hooked for every flip-flopping twitch on the thread that Sally’s changeable moods would bring. It was a pattern that he would become accustomed with over the years, but one that he would never get used to; when a barely perceptible lift or drop of her brow would signal that a change was looming. Loving Sally, he would gradually come to accept, was like loving more than one person. And he was never truly sure which one was real, or which one he loved the most.
It’s what had made them such a perfect match. The line that flexed between them held him firm; kept him in the here and now; stopped him from slipping the hook and sinking into his own murky depths.
Scott flipped open his Clipper and lit his dead rollie. He couldn’t bring himself to crop Sally and Jae out of a photograph. He was a better man than that. The tinkling ticking of his wrist watch marked time. It brought with it the feeling that there was something that he was supposed to be doing. Aside from work.
He shrugged. Whatever it was it had escaped him. He moved the selfie into his archive and turned his attention to some more recent snaps. Himself and Kirk raising their beer jugs in The Kilt and Clover; a boozy reflection of them in the pub mirror, its seeping glass warping their features. He and Kirk, or Jim as he was Christened, had known each other since they’d used jumpers for goalposts. Being science fiction geeks at high school, the mantle ‘Jim Kirk’ had stuck. Kirk and Scotty: the original sci-fi bromance. Could you make out the fag packet on the table in the background?
He wavered. No. This called for something more wholesome and rugged. A shot lensed by his wingman, Emma. Caught in a flattering light leaning against his Land Rover Defender, with his legs crossed and hands pushed deep into the pockets of his jeans, he looked deceptively broad-shouldered and boyish. It was natural, sunny, perfect.
And rare because Emma always delighted in shooting Scott from the least bewitching angle. She must have been in a forgiving frame of mind that day, or had momentarily forgotten that it was her personal mission to make him look ugly and stupid. She’d taken the picture when she was working for Scott in the summer before her last year at university. Sally was working as a lecturer in film and Emma was one of her students. Emma had seemed genuinely shocked when Sally outed her as a dyke – her words – by way of an introduction. Scott wasn’t. Sally had been on an upswing for a couple of weeks and generally lacked candour when hypomania was bubbling under. At first he’d paid superficial attention to his wife’s suggestion that Emma could come and do some admin work for him. He’d been distracted by Sally’s less than professorial hemline and that she’d started wearing make up to campus. Still, Scott resolved that having Emma around for a few weeks could be a stabilising influence – for himself, if not for Sally.
About me and what I’m looking for:
I’m an embittered, guilt-ridden cynic whose wife hanged herself because I was too self-absorbed to keep it in my pants. A total headfuck as a person, with the emotional intelligence of a thirteen year-old, I’m conflicted, maladjusted and unstable. I can feign being sociable but when all’s said and done, I prefer to be alone. I’m not lonely; I don’t need you. But my son does. If it wasn’t for him I’d already be six foot under from a sustained and heroic campaign of self-annihilation. He’s the reason I live and breathe and the only person I’ll ever truly love.
I’m looking to fill the huge void left by my dead wife. Ideally a clone, minus the bipolar disorder. Nobody I’ve ever met comes close. I’m likely to unfavourably compare you to her every day, in every way. But I’m sure I can go through the motions, to give my son a mum and to keep my mates off my back. They seem to think it’s a good idea for me to share my fucked-upness with someone else. It’ll damage you as much as it’s damaged me. And my dead wife.
But if you fancy a fuck, I’m your man.
Scott triumphantly planted a full stop at the end of his purging, crossed his arms over his chest and admired his work.
Then, with the backspace key firmly pressed, he watched the hungry cursor eat his catharsis letter by letter.
‘Ah, screw this shit.’ He closed the dating site tab, revealing the recently acquired logistics software that he was supposed to be mastering for Move it with McCabe. Why his cousin thought that their haulage firm of only five wagons and a handful of drivers needed to go digital was beyond Scott, as was the software itself. No doubt Iain’s big plans for expansion. ‘He can expand on this,’ Scott said, extending his middle finger.
His phone vibrated on the desk. It bore Emma’s image shaking from side to side, giving her a diabolical grimace that made Scott shiver.
‘You forgot didn’t you, Scotty?’ The real Emma was feeling rattled too, it seemed.
‘Forgot? Forgot wha—?’
‘I bloody knew you would. I’m at Glazebrook. You’re picking me up from the 10:35? Or you would be if you’d—’
‘Remembered to put it in me flaming phone. Dickwad. Soz, Em, I’m on me way.’ Scott grabbed his car keys.
‘You’d better be, I’m dying for a slash. The frigging loos are locked.’
‘Girls can’t slash. You need a dick for that.’
‘I’ve got a dick. I call him Scott. Shit for brains.’
‘I resemble that remark,’ he said, as he made it out to the Land Rover and jumped behind the dash. ‘I’m out of the door. Have your slash at mine. I’ll fix you a brew when we get back.’
‘OK. Just hurry up, I’m freezing my nuts off.’ She hung up.
Scott turned the engine over. The windscreen wipers juddered across the dry glass. A sheet of paper tucked behind the driver’s-side blade fluttered in the breeze.
‘Not another bloody ticket.’ It wasn’t the first time some job’s worth had traced him to the farm’s car park. He jumped out and snatched it before it took flight.
It wasn’t a ticket he had in his hand, it was a familiar flyer.
Do you believe in destiny?
Believe some things were meant to be?
Have yet to find your perfect mate?
Then it’s time to make your Date with Fate
Find your perfect mate at www.datewithfate.com
‘Christ Roy, I got the message the first time.’ Scott shook his head as he threw the flyer into the car.