Michael couldn’t stop drinking. His wife Ruth had.
“Hey,” he prodded Ruth. He sniffed and rubbed his head. Ruth remained still.
He went to the toilet. After flushing on his way to the kitchen, he passed the large framed picture of Walthamstow dog track that he’d taken with him from rented flat -to- rented flat, before settling it in the hallway of their mortgaged maisonette; secured by regular eighty hour work weeks and long financial meetings with an accountant half his age. He took his coffee and sat at the kitchen table, looking out at the football pitches where last night a veteran league five-a-side game played as he drank with an old builder friend of his, Robert.
“Work not going well?”
“Nah. The job’s gone to shit,” Robert said. “We’ve got this foreman. If he were any thicker than I’d say he was a son of someone important, wet behind the ears, dicking around onsite as he gropes around for the ropes. But he ain’t that kind of thick so I’m guessing he’s a graduate who’s got very fucking lucky. He’s too weak for the job. Lily-livered. He keeps his teabag in tepid water for a couple of seconds and then drowns it with a pint of milk. His name is John Arthur. I mean, what kind of name is that? Having a Christian name as a surname? He’s got no fucking surname. He has no fam-a-lee—” Michael laughed. “—And that’s all he drinks. Tea! You can’t trust a foreman who don’t drink.”
Michael thought about Ruth, smoking and watching TV in the living room. “Listen, you can’t trust no one who doesn’t drink. Ruth’s taken a turn for the worse since giving up the booze.”
“Has she tried to stop you?”
“She won’t stop me. She’s good like that. But she’s got all superstitious. Hasn’t turned to god — yet. But, I reckon it’s in the post. Whenever she goes out she avoids all the cracks in the pavement. You know how difficult that is? The streets here are like a fucking spider’s web. Barely walks to the end of the street now. And she’s ordered some weird shit from a catalogue. A crystal ball and a…Buddha. And this big copper bowl with a stick in it.”
“Everyone goes to church nowadays,” Robert started. “Pubs are getting quieter and the church is filling up. No one names their son Lenny and no one supports Spurs. The world’s gone to shit.”
The men laughed. Ruth entered. They stopped laughing as Ruth looked down at them. She went to the open window, put her hands out to the night and clapped three times. The players on the pitch stopped playing and looked up to see Ruth flashing her breasts at them. Her face remained the same throughout: passive regardless of her actions. She then put her top back down and left the kitchen.
Michael had met Robert onsite, both working until their legs gave in. At night they slept on their fronts; their backs aching. On the weekend they’d go get loaded. The problems began when they started to drink, smoke and sniff on the job. The drugs never helped Michael and he’d become accident prone like the time he put out his roll-up on top of a propane bottle, or when he put his hand inside a wood chipper to free the blades from a thick branch, or when he was on a roof and put his foot through a skylight, letting shards of glass and one black, size nine, Dickies boot fall down to frightened office workers. Each time he should’ve been seriously hurt, maimed or killed. As nothing bad happened to him, he believed the drugs got him through the scrapes. White lined talismans, amber liquid charms and rolled up jujus that gave him the shield of courage, brazenness and a lack of care. How could things go wrong when the drugs were doing him so well?
One morning, Michael sat in the back of a midi van with three other builders about to snort cocaine off a CD. Michael was given the first line with three other lines cut next to his. Curious to see who the CD was of he turned the disc over. The four men watched the powder fall like thousands of tiny white feathers to the corrugated crevices of the van’s floor. Michael thought, This is it. Trying to escape he stood up quickly and hit his head on the roof of the van. With his left hand massaging the top of his head, Michael stretched out his right waving for clemency.
He returned to work after the beating with a bloody nose and swollen ribs.
Two weeks later he got back in the van and as he was about to snort the first line, a peace offering, the foreman opened the back of the van and kicked Michael off the job while a fiver still dangled from his right nostril. Once off the site, he took the fiver out of his nose, wiped it and went off for breakfast.
It was easy giving up the hard drugs, the ones his parents warned him off. But it was different with the drink.
After his coffee, Michael got to sweeping the floors while smoking: sweeping the ash and dust together into a small pile. Couples were arguing about DNA tests on the TV. Michael left them to it and went to the bedroom. Ruth was still asleep. Without washing or shaving, he put on the clothes he’d worn yesterday. The promise of a beer in the bath later made him rush. He picked up his wallet and keys. Ruth woke.
“Where you going?”
“I’ve got to get the kit. Floors won’t do themselves.”
Ruth turned away from him to the bare wall. “Why?”
“It’s one of a thousand jobs.”
“What’s the time?”
“Coming up to half-ten. You going to make me breakfast?”
“How long you going to be?”
Ruth smoothed her hair to the pillow. “Yeah, breakfast. Good.”
Michael went to kiss her. He stopped and left the room.
It was a short walk down Jewel Street to the hire shop. Two men stood behind the counter. He went to the older one, the manager.
“Alright. Have you got any sanders?”
“Did you reserve it?”
“We ain’t got one.”
The manager looked to his work colleague and then at Michael. “No. This isn’t a place to joke.”
“I can’t do it with an edger. Can I?”
“How much you got to do?”
“Living room and a hallway.”
“We’ve got a refinisher,” the younger guy said.
“What does that do?”
The manager smiled. “A refinishing sander? It’ll tickle the floor.”
“Really?” No one answered Michael. “Have you got plenty of sheets?”
“We’ve got sheets.”
“I’ll take it. And an edger.”
Once home Michael couldn’t smell any food and couldn’t hear Ruth cooking as he rolled the refinishing sander into the living room. He went to the bedroom.
“Christ, Ruth. I’m starving here.”
“Ditto. You cooking?” Ruth said into her pillow.
“Oi. You said that you’d make breakfast,” Michael said.
He stood for a moment. Seeing Ruth neither stir nor talk he left the bedroom and made another cup of coffee telling himself that he’d eventually eat, that he’d eventually get the job done and that he’d eventually have a beer in the bath, a shave, put on some clean clothes and then go down the pub. All he had to do was the floorboards. Drink his coffee, stay off the booze and do the floorboards. The boards were yardsticks that once done would allow him to drink.
In the living room, he tipped the machine on its back and thought of Ruth. Maybe it was a minor miracle that she never suffered from the shakes and that she didn’t hallucinate and that it had been six months since she was on the wagon; a period of time that he could never imagine sustaining without alcohol. But it couldn’t explain the trinkets that she was bringing into the house or her mutterings that sounded like a prayer she uttered each night before sleep. He wondered how much longer it would be before she went to some prayer group or meditation meeting or joined other teetotallers who hugged each other and clapped to some supernatural being they had found in their recent sobriety. And that was the problem Michael had with teetotallers; they only seemed to laugh when rejoicing towards invisible entities.
After placing the holding pad on the fading Velcro of the machine, he took a sanding sheet and stuck it to the pad, running his hand slowly over the grit. It was the toughest grit the shop had. Michael thought that his calloused hands would do a better job as he lowered the head of the machine for the paper to make contact with the wood. The usual sound, like a knife cutting through cloth sack over and over again, was tame and as he tried moving the sander forward — it wouldn’t take it. He stopped the machine, lifted it up and placed it in a different position. Looking at the section of the floor that he’d sanded he realised that the manager of the hire shop was generous when he said that the machine would tickle the floor.
Ruth entered the room. “You want tea or coffee?”
“I’ve got coffee. I need feeding,” he said before starting again.
“What you got in your hands? A feather duster?”
“It’s a refinishing sander.”
“Why doesn’t it sound like Concorde?”
“It’s not the usual make. Next one down.”
“It’s not doing much.”
“Will you go make me breakfast? I’m wasting away.”
“I don’t doubt it. I can hear your stomach rumbling over that.”
Michael sat down in the kitchen, having done less than a couple of square feet of sanding which he considered poor and took his first bite into his bacon sandwich; Ruth’s second attempt, having burnt the first as she daydreamed of going for a Tarot reading.
“I’m going to have to give up with that refinisher. Move on to the edger.”
“Why don’t you stick the sanding sheets on the soles of your shoes?”
Michael put down his sandwich. “You want me to stick sanding sheets on the bottom of my feet?”
“Shoes. Not feet. Shoes. Walk up and down.”
“Walk up and down?”
“Do the moonwalk. Run up and down. Skid. It’ll be better than the shit you’re using.”
“For fuck sake, woman. I know its shit.” Michael picked up his sandwich and started eating again.
“Why’d you get it in the first place?”
“They had nothing else.”
“So you settled for shit?”
Michael put down his sandwich again. “Are you my fucking boss now?”
He stood up, took his cup of coffee and went to the cupboards, brought out a bottle of whiskey and poured a shot into his coffee. He replaced the bottle, sat back at the table and knocked back his coffee and whiskey, sighing as he placed the cup down.
“Do you want a hand?” Ruth said.
“I thought you quit.”
Ruth stopped eating. She stared at Michael. “I’m never drinking again.” She waited until Michael was looking at her before she spoke again. “Do you need a hand with sanding?”
“Can do. But I’m using the edger. I want to get on with it and the only way that’ll happen is with that edger.”
“You should go back to the shop. Get yourself a proper sander.”
“They haven’t got one.”
“No,” Michael said and took the rest of his sandwich to the counter where he started to make another cup of coffee. With the milk, sugar and coffee granules he added a shot of whiskey. “I just want to do it today and then go down the pub. Get on top of things.”
“You want a smoke?”
“I’ve got to sand.”
“You’re drinking. You want a smoke?”
After his cigarette, Michael went back to sanding, placing an eighty grit disc on the edger and getting down on his knees. One of his old foremen told him to crouch whenever he used the machine, that it was powerful, that it could kick back and hit him in the balls if he kneeled. It happened once and despite his testicles swelling to the size of oranges Michael continued to kneel. He looked over at Ruth, who was using the refinisher. She looked bored. Only recently she wanted to help him around the maisonette.
Since losing her job as a librarian, due to poor timekeeping, brought on by drinking, the only job Ruth could get was posting takeaway menus through letterboxes. She left, after two weeks, getting paid half of what was promised to her as her boss argued about how she could get rid of a thousand leaflets in half-an-hour. She told Michael this as she laughed, telling him how each door she went to got dozens of the same takeaway menu so she could start drinking in earnest. The last three doors got hundreds of the same menus.
From the moment they’d moved into their new home there was always something that needed doing. Michael was fine with that and happy that Ruth never interfered and at the end of a job she’d give him a beer and a smile and he could relax. Things changed when she quit drinking. The work in the maisonette was the only work she was interested in doing, only interested in doing it alongside Michael and she worked at it poorly, as if she had to work and there was no choice in the decision. Michael looked at the clothes that were beginning to get tight on her. He silently praised the diet that she was once on, the one that kept her weight off, the one he would stay on: cigarettes and alcohol.
The section of the floor that had been sanded had doubled by the time they were back in the kitchen.
“I think I’m sweating out last night’s alcohol. Go get me a glass.”
“Christ. You want a drink that bad?”
“I can’t. Not until I’m done.”
“What were those whiskey’s then?”
“Medicinal. Help for the job.”
“You need to get a better sander.”
Ruth looked at his forehead. “Do you want some medicine? Some yeast flavoured medicine?”
“I think I’m out from last night.”
“I’ll go get some.”
“What? You don’t mind?”
“Why would I mind?”
Michael knew if he ever tried to quit, the local off-license would get him on the sauce in no time. “Have we got any money in the piggy?”
Ruth left the kitchen. Michael went to the cupboard and knocked back a shot of whiskey, sitting back down to his cigarette just in time as Ruth returned.
“We’ve got a little. I’ll go get some.”
“You’re too good for a man like me.”
Ruth smiled and left. When he heard the front door close, Michael went back to the cupboard and had another shot of whiskey. He giggled, thinking nothing had changed from when he tried to get high as a teenager on glue, making the occasional air-fix model to throw his parents off the scent. The same had been true when hiding pot, coke and too much alcohol from ex-girlfriends. He thought he’d met a kindred spirit with Ruth, not in her drinking, which at the start had been minor, but her attitude which changed the night not when she said that she’d quit, that night when Michael thought she was joking, that she’d drunk too much and it had turned her into a liar, but a couple of years ago when he lay on his side, holding on to his side, complaining that it hurt. Ruth’s response was to lay off the drink and as he nodded he thought he could do with a double. In the morning, when it was time for work, he got drunk before clocking in and was sent home at ten after walking a scaffold board straight into a pane of glass — five storeys high, in the same building where his leg went through the skylight.
Eventually he was drunk on the job most days and it was part of the reason why he went self-employed.
Sometimes he missed the job.
One afternoon he and Robert started to perform dead animal puppet theatre. Robert held up a dead pigeon as Michael held a dead rat, both men speaking in bad Mexican accents.
“Hey, mister? You try to fuck my sister, man?”
“No, man. I just want cheeeeese!”
“Cheese? That’s what I call her pussy, man!”
The play would come to an end as the men would hit the dead animals against each other, duelling as if they were swords as the other builders stood, watched and laughed.
Ruth came back with beer. He stopped himself from reaching for one as they sat on the kitchen counter. He wiped his hands vigorously together.
“What’s up?” Ruth said.
Michael clapped his hands. “I can’t work with that refinisher,” Michael said. “The bastards useless. Might as well attack the wood with a Brillo pad.”
In the living room Michael quietly rebuilt the new sander, having had to have disassembled it downstairs so he could carry it up in pieces. Ruth was asleep on the sofa. A cup of half-drunk coffee lay by her drooping hand, a book opened and resting on her chest. He placed on a sheet, the coarsest sheet, the one that would make the most noise. He turned the sander on and then, more quickly than he should have, placed the machine heavily on the floor. As the paper made contact with the wood the room filled with the sound of a choir of grinding mouths. Ruth screamed. Michael laughed. He couldn’t stop. His upper body was vibrating. He hadn’t moved the machine and only noticed this when he smelt burning, to which he looked down at the floor to see the stationary sander devouring wood.
“Fuck,” Michael shouted before letting go of the sander. The runaway sander chewed forward and ran straight into the skirting board. “Fuck-fuck-fuck.”
Michael ran to the sander. Ruth laughed as he failed to tilt the sander up that was stuck in a gap created from the smash. He rolled the sander backwards causing the sheet to explode, a small part hitting him in the stomach, no more than a tap but on instinct he reached for his stomach, letting go of the sander, which raced forward, returning to its hole. Ruth laughed louder. All Michael could smell was rubber, burning his nostrils as he pressed the stop button on the sander. He dumbly stood, waiting for it to come to a stop. When it did the sound of rubber breaking ceased and the only sound in the room was Ruth laughing.
After Michael cleaned up the mess, he assessed the drum and was relieved it wasn’t as bad as first thought. He put on another sanding sheet, took up the position and started again. Ruth began flapping her book. Michael noticed, stared at Ruth and turned off the sander.
Ruth stopped flapping her book. “Do you want to go out for dinner?”
“Dinner…a date? Do you fancy it?”
“A date? Where would we go? No, Ruth. I need to do the floors. Why do you all of a sudden want to go out? We never go out for dinner. The kitchen table…our laps are good enough. Why eat out?”
Ruth couldn’t keep her eyes on Michael. She looked at the floor and traced the big black streak in the wood, the trace which she thought looked as if a giant slug had entered their living room and made one last trail before it died in the hole in the skirting board. Michael started the sander up and began sanding again. Ruth picked up her book and left the room.
An hour later, the floors looking slightly fresher, no way near to being finished, Michael wanted to drink.
He showered, shaved, changed and as he picked up his wallet and keys he saw Ruth in the garden smoking and reading. He stopped looking, left the house and went to the pub.
On his walk to the pub Michael thought back to after one of the first times he slept with Ruth. As they laid naked on the sofa, she made a paper fortune teller.
“When I was in school, I always wanted to marry a girl who could do that.”
“Pick a colour.”
“B-L-U-E,” Ruth said as she opened and closed the teller to the letters. “Pick a number.”
“One-two-three-four-five-six,” Ruth said, opening and closing the teller to the numbers. “Pick another number.”
Michael looked at the teller to see his options: ONE, TWO, FIVE and SEVEN. “Two.”
Ruth opened the paper flap marked TWO to find the word GIN.
Michael started laughing before lifting himself off the sofa and walking to the drinks cabinet he’d made.
“I can’t believe I’m going to drink mother’s ruin in the afternoon,” he said.
Ruth smiled. “I can’t believe you have mothers ruin.”
“Michael,” the barman, Carl, sang, already pouring Michael a pint of his regular as he walked in.
“The one and only.”
“You’ve been missed.”
“You’re only human, Carl.”
There was no music, the music didn’t start till nine and the DJ, Dave, was drinking in the corner, where he would set up his decks later. There was the TV though (even if no one spoke the pub always had sound). The TV had been reinstated after the projector screen, purchased at a large cost, had been ruined by pints of thrown beer which had occurred during an international friendly. The TV was showing a Scottish league football match.
“Is this a joke?”
“What? The telly?”
“What do you want me to show?”
“It’s football. Twenty-two blokes and a ball. Green pitch, screaming idiots and shit weather. What’s your problem?”
“If we’re watching foreign football what about Spain? What about any other country starting with an ‘s’?”
Michael laughed. “Chuck in some pigs feet, Carl.”
He slapped down a five pound note onto the bar before Carl placed a pint and a packet of pork scratchings. Michael downed half of the pint, sighed loudly before opening the pork scratchings. He looked around the pub, smiled at a few regulars, winking at a couple of them, before producing from the packet a scratching with hairs around it. He studied the scratching, smiled at it then threw it into the air, catching it in his mouth before washing it down with the last half of his pint.
“Another pint, Carl, please.”
“You seem happy.”
“Happy? Happiness is what I’m all about, Carl. It’s my, what the French would say, raison d’etre. Know what I mean?”
Carl pulled back the tap. “I haven’t a fucking clue, Michael.” The two men laughed, before another five pound note was slapped down. “Why are you so happy?”
“It’ll set you free.”
“Work sets you free?”
“The Nazi’s thought so,” Michael said. “My floors. They’re clean. They’re done.”
“Christ, I never thought the day would come.”
“Ye of little faith, Carl. Ye of little faith.”
Carl was nodding to another regular, taking a small glass to the whiskey optic. “Who thought that could make you so happy?”
“It’s done. It’s done and that makes me happy. It’s a good job done.”
Carl smiled and took the whiskey to the regular. Michael reached into his pocket.
“Let me, let me,” Michael said as he slapped a ten pound note on the bar and rescued his five. The regular smiled and raised his whiskey.
Michael took a large sip of his pint. He looked around the pub again. At the fruit machine stood two teenagers in tracksuits, whiskers above their lips. Further on to the pool table a man with a deep scar, running from eye to throat, which met a spider’s web tattoo on his neck, took a shot and potted the black, winning the game as his friend, automatically placed another pound coin into the pool table’s slot. Looking at the other side of the pub two young women laughed loudly on a faux leather sofa. There was an elderly couple in a booth. The booth was small, the glass surrounding it cracked and missing; beer mats were put in place for glass that Carl had not found the time to repair. The couple sat next to each other. They did not talk and Michael thought that maybe they were talked out. The husband, brought his bitter to his mouth and took a fair sip. The wife, looked down at her ginger ale. The man replaced his pint, looked at his wife and smiled at her, pressing her hand to which she looked at him with something approaching light. Michael thought of Ruth, then took another look at the two women on the sofa, at their hands which were clasped around bright orange drinks of sugary alcohol. They were laughing. And that was the difference. The elderly couple smiled, the men at the pool table scowled and the teenagers at the fruit machine were open mouthed in dumb intent at the flashing lights. Only the women on the sofa, slightly drunk, getting drunker, laughing, their heads thrown back, showing their throats, their throats that Michael wanted to kiss, made any sense to him. He wanted to catch up with them. He returned to his pint which he knocked back.
“Carl…a shot, Carl. I’ll have a shot.”
“You win the lottery?”
“Fuck some blonde twins?”
“You can’t be that happy over some D.I.Y?”
“What other reason can this man have to be happy?”
Michael staggered into the side brick wall of the pub. He regained his footing before staggering straight into a car, waking it from its sleep so that its lights flashed and its horn blew once every second. Michael leant the top half of his body towards the car, raising a solitary finger to his lips.
“Ssssshhhh,” he admonished the car before laughing and continuing to stagger, swaying backwards and forwards in an imaginary breeze, feeling like a pirate who’d left his wooden leg at sea, his eyes trying to focus on the ground, making use of the dog shit and phlegm as navigational pinpoints to get home, as if they were stars in the sky. Once or twice he leant on a lamppost fearing he’d create some pinpoints of his own. Michael walked on, edging slightly to the kerb. He looked down and saw a gasoline rainbow in a puddle. He thought back to the small box room of their last rented flat, the flat they weren’t allowed to paint or decorate in, to which he thought was Bollocks and to which he painted a giant rainbow along one wall, surprising himself and Ruth with this unused talent of his. He remembered kneeling down, having had a drink or four while painting, wobbling slightly on his knees, rubbing his wives stomach, singing to their unborn child, “Somewhere over the rainbow / Way up high / And the dreams that you dreamed of / Once in a lullaby.”
He looked up to his wife with moist eyes and a smile like a smear. Ruth smiled back and held his hands over their unborn child.
The child was born prematurely and lived for two days. Michael drank through both of them.
Home, at the bottom of the stairs, Michael vomited. Feeling unsteady he got down on his hands and knees. The smell of the vomit hit him and he felt old as he vomited again.
“I’ve been sick. Ruth, I’ve been sick!”
He began to crawl, manoeuvring his hands away from the vomit, making his way to the first step, moving forward, unable to look behind him and avoid the vomit which hugged his denim knees, leaving small gobbets of sick on the steps as he made his way upstairs, growing fainter as he reached the top.
Michael crawled into the living room to see Ruth crying, fag in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other. She was looking at the floor. He followed her eyes and saw the sander, lying on its back, with its cable cut in two, exposing the live, neutral and earth wires – all of them broken. If electricity could bleed, this was it. His eyes moved back and forth between Ruth and the sander. As he focused on the sander he listened to Ruth crying, her sobs stopping for a moment as she drank and then the sound of the gin flowing back to the bottom of the bottle as she dropped her hand and started crying again. All the time his thoughts were on the sander and the fact that he would lose his deposit.
CHRIS SIMPSON grew up in Bracknell and Slough. He has worked as a waiter, a cinema projectionist, a shoe salesman, an attendant in an amusement arcade, hiring out construction and demolition tools, a pasty seller, a caretaker for a primary school and is now a teaching assistant. He was a collaborator on a sketch show and has performed as a stand-up comedian.
He received a First in Creative Writing at BA level from Birkbeck University.
Earlier this year he was nominated for the Royal Academy and Pin Drop Short Story Award 2016.
“Part-Time Happiness” is his first collection comprising of seven short stories bookended by two novellas (currently unpublished).
He lives in Moscow and is working on a novel.
You can find him on: www.writerchrissimpson.com