FICTION: Substitute by Gerard McKeever

There were a lot of strange smells underneath the kitchen table. It was a lower register with its own set of rules. There were no faces, just feet and memories of angry voices. Robert’s nose was pressing against the surface of the floor, his torso prone, his arms stretched out in road-kill disarray. These visits to beneath the table were reasonably rare. But here he was again, in amongst the crumbs of toast, dog hair, forgotten pips and seeds, hardwood fragments, black stuff and grit. It wasn’t an ideal place to sleep. He opened his eyes into the blinding Wednesday light, tried to think about something other than his immediate surrounds, and gave up. Above his head the layers of odour in the kitchen rose from the cocktail at floor level, through a herbal breeze coming through an opened window, finishing in the humid, heady areas above the cabinets where a sticky glaze formed on forgotten pots and pans. Robert lay at the bottom of it all, giving off his own distinctive aromas. He didn’t really care about the pots, or the herbal breeze, or about much at all. It was hard to care, down underneath the kitchen table.

‘Wake up, Da,’ said the little girl (S… S… Su… Suz…? Suzanne?) standing over his head. The space under the table was the family’s corner of shame. Like a dog, Robert’s three-year-old daughter was hypersensitive to the shift in power dynamic when Daddy was there. ‘You bad. You wake up now.’

Robert waited for a moment. ‘Oh, Suzy,’ he said. ‘You, eh, almost gave me a heart attack there. What are you doing up?’

‘Blekfast time. You bad.’

‘Okay darling, whatever you say. Pass over your Daddy’s shirt, will you?’

‘No! Hahaha!’ She ran out of the room.

Robert sat up, his head glancing against the underside of the table. He could only feel one leg. Jesus, what? Real concern flashed into his face, a chemical anxiety growing. He rubbed at the other limb, lying like big flaccid meat. Blood poured lazily into it and Robert winced at the pins and needles. Another hangover trance. He was always sleeping in stupid positions; useless, stupid positions.

‘Suzy!’ he shouted, afraid to call on his wife in case the other guy was here. ‘Suzy!’ he tried again. There was no answer. She was hiding somewhere, playing in her bedroom maybe, or upstairs with them. Forget it, thought Robert, and went back to sleep.

‘You’re still here,’ said Tessa, ‘still.’

‘Oh, aye,’ said Robert, waking up once more, trying to remember who needed to apologise. ‘I must have passed out, I suppose.’

‘Yep,’ was all she said.

‘Is, uh … was … how’s it, going, love?’

‘“Love”, is it?’

‘Come on darlin’, sure give me a break here.’ Robert tried to clamber up onto his feet, but the leg was still half-numb. ‘Is Suzy in nursery today?’

Tessa just stared at him, stranded under the kitchen table. Robert hadn’t done this for a while. Not since he first began to suspect.

‘I can take her if you want.’

‘I put your jacket in the stairwell. There was mustard on the door handles.’

‘Honestly, I could take her to nursery. It’s been a few days.’

‘Is that cigar smoke? Oh, of course, you don’t remember.’

It was less than a month since the shambles in the car park, Robert trying to pass his daughter ice cream through the closed window of an escaping car, the man in the driving seat never turning around. Once again, he had turned righteous indignation into shame. It was becoming a speciality of his. Maybe there’d been a confrontation this time – best not to know.

Robert opened his eyes again. ‘I like your socks, Tess,’ he said. ‘They look very … durable.’

This was certainly a weak footing from which to win her back, but it was now or never. She was slipping away too quickly. The room was cold and quiet, Tessa’s breathing audible from overhead.

‘We need to have a chat, I think, darling.’

‘You think, Bob?’

Saturday nights in Heraghty’s, the Allison Arms, sometimes into town, she had been his hero, always smoking those long purple cigarettes, whatever they were called. He had sung karaoke, belting out Kenny Rogers and Tom Petty, looking smart in his tennis shoes and striped shirt. It had all been good, even if Tessa had never been entirely comfortable with his past. But then the fights, the nights spent sleeping in the corridor and in the bath, each location a different, specific humiliation.

‘I thought Suzy would save us,’ said Robert, unable to think of anything lighter.

‘Me too,’ said Tessa.

‘I still love you.’

There was silence for a minute. And then, cringing, Robert farted. It was a long, expressive treble note, like a cry for help.

‘I’m a drunk,’ he said, hoping that this would spark a mutual confession. An angry drunk, he could have added, though not a violent one.

Tessa didn’t offer her own admission, leaning against the sink in a faded dressing gown, her hair a mess, looking as always much more beautiful without the makeup. The angles were all cinematic from down on the floor.

‘I’ve been faithful, love,’ Robert said, the words catching in his throat.

He had been faithful, though it didn’t seem to matter. Ever since Tessa found out about Mr Grant Adonis, just over six months ago, very little Robert could say or do seemed to matter.

The thing was, Robert worked in the Midlands porn scene for a while during the late 1990s, largely as what the industry termed a ‘stunt cock’. Shortly after, he earned minor cult status with an account of his experiences, though the whole thing quickly became an embarrassment. The few friends who knew about it had never allowed him to move on, and now Tessa knew. She was holding it against him, a kind of oozing infidelity that transcended concerns of time and place.

‘Okay, Grant,’ she said.

‘Come on, love. Not now.’

Robert’s screen appearances rarely involved anything other than the most graphic close-ups and he had never adopted an official alias. So it was a little disingenuous when he released his memoir under the pseudonym Grant Adonis.

‘Please don’t make me go over all of it again,’ he said. ‘I haven’t got the energy. I just want to …’

Footsteps on the stairs stopped Robert in mid-sentence. He lay in silence as the man tied his shoelaces in the hallway, opened the door and left. Tessa stood motionless for the duration, staring at the image of Tenerife on the calendar pinned to the fridge.

‘Fucking coward,’ said Robert. ‘Cunt,’ he added, less specifically.

Tessa left the room, rattled up the stairs and returned holding a stack of something, which she placed on the floor beside Robert. ‘I found this in a box in our bedroom,’ she announced, with a cold emphasis on the word ‘our’. It was a full copy of Robert’s book, one that he must have kept and forgotten about.

‘Oh,’ said Robert, staring at the underside of the kitchen table.

The book was titled Ever Heard of a Penis? A Novel in Four Skins. It was a pretty unusual item. To justify his punning subtitle, Robert had insisted that the work’s four volumes be bound in flesh-coloured leather. They were embroidered and dyed in phallic flourishes at each corner, conceived like points of the compass.

‘It was another life, darling. I’ll get rid of those and we should both just forget about it, ok?’

‘God, the state of these dishes.’

‘Babe?’

‘I don’t … it’s just not … what I …’ Tessa rambled. ‘I don’t know if we can go back.’

Robert started to panic. Was this it? He was still trying to think of a response when Suzy ran back into the room, her interruption strangely precise – a toddler’s sense of timing. She did a few laps holding her ragged corner of blanket, stumbling every five or six steps but somehow keeping going. ‘Poopoo!’ she shouted.

Robert tried to get the volumes out of sight by rolling onto them. ‘Do you need to go to the potty, sweetheart?’ he asked.

‘No! Poopy!’

‘Oh, right.’

‘In the park! The big, lellow doggy!’ said Suzy.

‘Samuel, do you mean?’

‘Poopy! Poopy! Poopy!’

‘Did Samuel do a poo in the park, Suzy?’

‘No! The big, lellow doggy!’

‘Samuel.’

‘And ice cleam! Poopy!’

Robert looked up at his wife pleadingly, leather popping out from under his arms and stomach. ‘Can we get some space?’

‘Ice cleam!’

‘Has she been on the beer again?’ he muttered to Tessa, nodding at their hyper tot. ‘Or something stronger?’ He pulled an awkward smile.

Suzy stopped, knowing that she was now being talked about rather than to. Poopypoopoo!’ She tried, upping the ante.

‘Daddy is going to take you to nursery today,’ said Tessa.

‘Daddy?’ said Suzy.

‘Yes sweetheart.’

‘Daddy?’

‘What is it, sweetheart?’

‘Bye, poopy!’ she giggled, sprinting out of the room.

Robert tried rolling over a couple of times. It wasn’t that big a table. ‘Please, please, just let’s go for a coffee or something, yeah?’

‘Bob … I think you need to know something.’

‘We’ll just go for a coffee, maybe have a croissant as well.’

‘Bob, you’re not listening to me.’

‘Don’t. A croissant!’

Tessa sighed. ‘You know I don’t like coffee.’

‘Croissants …’

‘Bob, you’ve got sunflower seeds and I don’t know what else stuck to your face. Come on.’

Robert moved to scrape them off but a wave of soured single malt from under his tongue and behind his eyes put him on his back. The books splayed out across the floor. ‘Would you get me a glass of water, love?’ he groaned.

‘Alright,’ said Tessa, passing him a pint. He took it and opened one eye to see her expression, somewhere between angry and confused.

‘Another life, Tess. I’ve told you that,’ said Robert.

‘I can’t seem to … I don’t know,’ she said.

Suzy was looking around the corner. ‘I can see you there, Sozzer,’ said Robert, who was at her level. The little girl scuttled away.

Tessa pointed at the four volumes of Ever Heard of a Penis? ‘It’s just bizarre, Robert. Ridiculous even. I just don’t know what to think. Still. Even now.’

‘You’re right. It is ridiculous. This is probably the only one left, so I’ll get rid of it and that’s that, ok?’

‘I’m not sure, Robert. I feel like this is never going to go away, like everyone knows and, Christ, what must they think?’

The book had been pretty popular at the time, in relative terms. Unperturbed at drawbacks and disbelief, Robert had found specialist stores in the Greater Glasgow area that were quite enthusiastic to sell it. The title had originally been conceived as Ever Heard from a Penis?, a pungent riff on the then-popular Vagina Monologues. Yet on reflection Robert opted for the more ambiguous Ever Heard of a Penis? It just felt right.

‘I don’t have to be ashamed,’ said Robert, as much to himself as to Tessa. He could feel the crumbs sticking to his face. ‘I don’t. I was young, it was good work …’

‘Good work?’ she interrupted. ‘I’ll bet it was. I’ll bet you loved shagging all those women. And the men.’

Robert sighed and leaned back. ‘Sort of, but not in the way you would think.’

‘Yes, well I wouldn’t know about that kind of thing, would I?’

‘You’re having an affair, Tess. I’m not.’

‘Fuck you.’ Tessa’s body moved in a shuddering way Robert had never seen before. At first he thought she was going to kick him. The kick never came.

‘Love?’

Tessa stayed upright, holding her hands together, bottom lip trembling. Robert imagined lurching over and playfully dragging her down to the floor, both of them laughing. Maybe she would slap him. He probably deserved it. How else could he have lost her? She would hit him and it wouldn’t matter. He reached out an arm to try to grab at her ankles, but couldn’t quite stretch.

‘Just come down here.’

‘I …’ Tessa glanced at him, shaking her head, arms held in an unusual posture.

The room was still, Robert’s chest tense. He was about to speak … when the buzzer rang out from the hallway and Tessa left to answer the door.

‘Oh hi, sorry, I forgot something,’ said the man, Robert’s replacement.

Robert lay still, frozen but hoping for a confrontation.

‘You find it?’ asked Tessa.

‘Yes, they’re here, it was just my slippers.’ Middle-class, east coast, a prick.

‘Ok, well.’ There was the sound of a kiss. It could have been reluctant on her part. Robert stayed underneath the kitchen table.

‘That’s right, leave,’ he whispered to himself.

Alone beneath the table, Robert rolled over and inspected his books. It had been a long time. They looked a bit ugly with the distance of years, though he couldn’t help feeling momentarily pleased at how they had turned out. He flicked through some of volume one. With diagrams and frilly text, the chapters described sensations, nuances of tumescence, psychological triggers, encouragements, disappointments and likely outcomes of situations (‘scenes’). Robert had written an encyclopaedia of the penis in the workplace, taking his role as a functional stunt-cock rather to heart.

He still remembered the first day. Heading to a non-descript industrial park outside Coventry, his 125cc almost threatening to break down halfway there. They had called it an interview, but no one seemed to notice when he turned up. He hung around for a while and was thinking about leaving when the director came over, briefly explained things from behind a Benson & Hedges, and then asked him to get ready. Robert had never been that comfortable on camera and at the end of the day was told he’d done ok, but was making too many awkward facial expressions. And so his stunt career was born. The money was awful, but the whole thing appealed to his sense of adventure. It never felt quite like work, and certainly not like normal sex. It was … fiction. It was only supposed to be temporary.

‘Tessa!’ Robert shouted in the direction of the door. ‘Suzy! Tessa!’ There was only silence in the flat. ‘Surplus to requirements,’ he mumbled, turning again to the book. It was, if Robert was honest, weird. The whole episode felt so far away, another life that was imposing itself on him. For most of the last decade the only fallout from it had been the odd ribbing in the pub and prying requests for gory detail. He wasn’t sure if any of his friends had actually seen the memoir itself. Though that didn’t stop the cleverer ones making jokes about his ‘dicktionary’ and something about the ‘little death of the author’.

Tessa came back into the room with tears in her eyes. She was wearing an old jacket from a holiday to Greece.

‘Love?’ he asked. ‘Shall I make you a cup of tea or something?’

‘You’d have to get up for that, Bob.’

‘Fair point. Fancy making me one?’

‘Don’t push your luck,’ she murmured. ‘God, I hate crying. It’s so humiliating.’

Robert’s hangover was fading, flashes of guilt and sadness melting into a numb positivity. ‘Right, fine,’ he said. He gathered up the four volumes of Ever Heard of a Penis? and balanced them on one arm. Keeping his face close to the floorboards, moving like a beetle or a cockroach, he crawled over to the bin, reached up, opened the lid, and dropped them in. ‘See? Gone. Now this has to stop. There’s no good reason …’

Tessa flinched, but let him continue.

‘… and, and just try to remember. I’m me.’

Tessa looked down at him. ‘Get up from there, Bob.’

‘Soon,’ he said. ‘Tell me what happened last night. Did we fight?’

Tessa sighed. ‘You were just crying this time.’

‘Oh, ok.’

‘I … I think Suzy heard you.’

Tessa looked out of the window, inhaled … and then, reluctantly, clambered down to sit next to him. There wasn’t quite enough room, but she squeezed in.

‘I can’t remember why I was crying.’

‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, Bob.’

They felt the changes in the breeze, sitting silently together underneath the kitchen table. Robert smiled.

‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’

‘I never did.’

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gerard mckeever

Gerard McKeever is a writer and academic based in Dumfries and Galloway. Recent short stories by Gerard appear in ‘Litro’, ‘Glasgow Review of Books’, ‘The Flexible Persona’, ‘The Island Review’, ‘From Glasgow to Saturn’ and the Broken20 ‘Li’ series. Gerard holds a postdoctoral position at the University of Glasgow. For more, see gerardmckeever.co.uk.

You can read Gerard McKeever’s previously published short story, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Nighthere

Buy the Stuncock T-Shirt, designed by Neilbbb, here

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