FICTION: The Coward by Kate Fitzpatrick

George regretted choosing a Friday to tell his kids about her. Friday had seemed ideal – end of the week, everyone’s relaxed, Lynda and what’s-his-face – Tim –would be on their date night and popping wine corks would echo down the terraced cul-de-sac. But now, sitting outside his former house at his former kerb in the sunset, parked behind his former second-hand BMW sedan, it seemed ludicrous. The whole thing seemed ludicrous. What teenager wants to hang out with his dad on a Friday night? Stupid.

“How are the butterflies, George?” Roxy said, next to him in the passenger seat.

“Fluttering.” He said.

“They’re millennials.” She said, dark eyes twinkling. “They’ll think it’s cool. Exotic.”

“I’m worried about Lynda.” He said.

“You divorced that woman seven years ago. There are cowherds in Kwa-Zulu Natal done less milking. Live a little,” she said.

He loved her musical African voice, the way the vowels danced after the consonants. He watched her lively, lived-in face, her broad shoulders and long hands. He wanted to say that meeting her had reinstated living as an option.

“Live a little.” He muttered. “Jesus Christ.”

She winked and crossed her lean stockinged legs and angled them away from him. He loved her legs. He never tired of them. She had decided not to wear her make-up. A clear signal: she wanted his boys to see both sides of her.

“I’ll text you when it’s time to come in.”

“All right.”

“It might take a while. I need to find the right moment.”

“I know. Go.”

“Are you sure we shouldn’t split it? The…the first thing and then the you thing?”

“No, because you still can’t even say the word ‘gay’. Once you’re on the runway you best take off. Go.”

He sighed and got out of the car.

George unlatched the wooden gate and stepped carefully around the many recycling bins. The front door had been repainted grey – when had Lynda done that? He automatically reached for the spare key under the flowerpot and remembered about boundaries. Someone inside was supposed to let him in. He adjusted his waterproof gilet and new non-iron shirt and rang the bell.

“Dad!”

Sam was enormous. His iPhone looked tiny in his dinner plate hand. He’d been six foot two at half-term a month ago and now his head almost grazed the doorway. His honey-brown hair was longer; he could tuck it behind his ears.

“Hi Sammy.” George looked for the hug, terrified of shoulder-clap territory but he needn’t have worried. Sam flopped towards him like a great hairless Labrador and squeezed generously. Georgegently patted his elder son’s broad back. The boy’s Deadpool T-shirt was soft and worn. He smelled like pizza and laundry soap.

“Christ, Sam. You’re shooting up. When can we get you down to the rowing club?”

Sam rolled his eyes, George’s eyes. The dark blue irises disappeared completely.

“Never, Dad. No way.” Sam ambled away down the corridor and George followed, noticing small changes. An artfully-posed family photo, framed in heavy pewter. A new umbrella rack. Through the open door of the kitchen he glimpsed a full-sized wine fridge and was impressed despite himself.

“Through here,” Sam said as Finn’s strained voice floated around the corner.

“Hi, Dad!”

George frowned at the tone and relaxed when he saw the foam roller – Finn was stretching his ITB muscle, supporting his weight on one elbow. The smaller boy was horizontal in front of the muted TV, his expression the one he used to wear when Lynda fed him carrots.

“Finn-man! Hang in there, son. Athletics tomorrow?”

“Sunday.” Finn choked out through gritted teeth. “Eight hundred metre school trials and my legs are like bloody cricket stumps.”

“They gave you hills?” George asked.

“Yeah, on Wednesday. Then intervals this morning, aargh!” The roller found its mark and Finn hovered, panting until he could bear it no more and collapsed next to the blue polystyrene fiend.

The boy bounced up, his freckled face serene. At fifteen, Finn was lithe and on the small side, like his mother.

“Ahhhh. So much better. Hi Dad.” He gave his father a hug, his wiry arms like vines around George’s waist. At least this one, George thought, is still shorter than me.

“Hello, Finn-man. Did your mum leave you dinner?”

“Yep! Pizza! Want a beer? We’ve got Coronas.”

“Yes, thanks.”

George moved to the enormous modular sofa and sat on the bar of the L. Sam and Finn clattered around the kitchen, dismantling pizza boxes and arranging TV dinners. George felt his eyes fill and took deep breaths through his nose. They were such good kids, he thought. Happy.

“Have you moved into the new flat? Can we see it?” Finn asked, taking a precise bite of his vegetarian jumbo.

“Yes,” George said brightly. “You two’ll like it, it’s in the city. There’s a big communal roof terrace. You’ll each have a room. It’s nicer than the old place.”

The boys smirked and exchanged glances.

“Gotta make honey to attract the bees, eh Dad?” Finn chirped. Sam grinned and looked embarrassed. George saw a mirror of his own younger face.

“Well I…”

“Come on, Dad! Tell me you’re not going to just work every night and come home by yourself.”

The moment had arrived rather sooner than he’d expected.

“Er, well, boys….”

They looked up at him, their wide eyes too childish for their men’s bodies, their mouths full of oil and dough and mushrooms. He waded in, every step a struggle through treacle, every word a blade.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you tonight.” George took a long pull on his beer. “I didn’t buy it on my own. I’ve met someone. Someone who’ll be living there with me.”

He got the last part out in a rush and turned towards the kitchen to hide his face. On the fridge, neatly arranged rows of party invitations, schedules, lists. How different it was to his own fridge, a steel-grey designer slab containing his dry white wine and Roxy’s imported make-up, her wigglue and eye-gel.

The two boys looked at each other again and had some wordless conversation. Sam’s big hand shot out.

“Congratulations, Dad. That’s awesome.”

“Yeah, awesome!” Finn chimed in. “About time.”

“Is it, now.” George murmured. Meet their eyes, he thought. You can do it. Meet their eyes.

“Yeah.” Sam said. “Y’know, with all the work stuff last year, everyone said you’d be fine once you met a nice woman.”

Finn nodded seriously.

‘Work stuff’ for them was some nebulous whirl of secretaries and legal briefs and too little sleep. ‘Work stuff’ for him had been a week of round-the-clock therapy, glugging anti-depressants until he wore himself down to the truth.

“Right.” George said. “Well then. Well.”

He was about to say it, about to launch into it but the polite man’s catch-all word tripped him up. Such a small word, a bridge between topics, a reassuring handshake but for George it was the deepest of pits, a trip wire that sent him tumbling. He couldn’t do it, not in this house, this monument to the nuclear family where his sons were protected from the world. He couldn’t tell them while he could see their lists of teenage chores on the whiteboard behind their heads, could see the party invitations that might dry up. Fucking fairies, his own father said to the television. No guts.

“Well.” He said again, his voice trembling. “That’s all I wanted to say for today.”

“When can we meet her?” Finn was practically bouncing on his seat.

“Not yet, Finn-man.” George said softly. “One step at a time.”

“When can we see the flat?” Finn said again, frowning.

“Soon.” George promised. He looked down the neck of his successor’s designer beer and knew he didn’t deserve it. “Soon. The main thing is, she makes me very happy. So! What about you two? Anybody special?”

He knew that would distract them and it did, but mostly he was asking for himself. Mostly he was listening for pronouns.

Roxy’s face was an inky smear against the night when George closed the car door. He didn’t have to say anything. Her face was already wet with tears and the sheen picked out the minuscule bobbles where she’d had electrolysis on her chin.

“You’re a coward.” She said, her voice shaking. She’d pulled a beanie on and above the waist, without her make-up, she was just a crying boy.

“I’m sorry, Roxy. I told them about you, I did tell them I’d met someone.”

“A woman,” she spat. “A real one. Boy oh boy, they are gonna get a shock.”

“It’s so much harder than I thought it would be.” He whispered. “I’m fifty-five. You’re thirty-two. I’m chipping away at it. Each time.”

“This is the third time.” She said through gritted teeth. “I want to get out of the car, George.”

“I know. I know.”

“I told you there wouldn’t be a fourth time, George.”

“I know.” George covered his face with his hands. Over his jeans and belt his stomach sagged. His body was reclaiming the past against his will. Desperation welled like lava.

“What can I do?” George said. “What can I do?”

She was quiet for a while. In profile, her blue-black skin stood out against the tired brick and crumbling pastel render of the matching houses in the street.

“Tell you what.” She said. “Let’s go to that wine bar. You know the one, full of drunk white people and cheeseboards and whatnot. You walk in there with me and hold my hand and maybe I let you take me home.”

George’s stomach swooped – anybody from his old life could be at Antonio’s Wine Bar on a Friday evening – but he’d been a lawyer for a long time and he knew a final offer when he saw one. Hopefully the place would have shut down by now.

The door of the bar tinkled open onto the worst-case scenario.

Not one, not two, but three of his old neighbours. All silver-haired and cycling-toned; all on separate tables with their spouses. Bob displayed his grown-up daughter’s huge engagement ring and blood-red manicure. Rex had upgraded to a younger wife. Poor Stephanie, George thought.

Roxy went in before him, hips wiggling, and sat at the bar. She liked nothing more than to make an entrance. Her black dress clung under her puffy jacket. There could be no doubt what she was. Under the beanie, her face was set. She wasn’t afraid. Eyes in every sleek white face in the room shifted towards her. They couldn’t help it.

He walked slowly up behind her and took the next seat. She was turned three quarters away from him, cold as Jupiter’s oceans, but her hand rested there on the bar. She was giving him the option.

“George!” Antonio roared from the back of the room. How is he still here? George thought. Wasn’t there a recession?

“Long time no see, eh? Good to see you! Where are you living now, you move away?”

George smiled his client smile.

“Yes, to the city I’m afraid. A glass of Montepulciano, please.”

“Of course, of course. I have just the one, I’ll open it for you, eh?”

He disappeared down the stairs to the cellar. He hadn’t asked for Roxy’s order and George hadn’t given it.

George looked at the slim dark hand on the marble bar. He had held that hand so many times, in private rooms, in dark cinemas, beside the river under cover of night. He’d watched it sign the deed to the flat. He wanted to be the man who would stand up for her. How long could he let this go on?

George started to reach out, could almost see his pale fingers resting on her brown ones, and was interrupted by the top of Antonio’s head. He jerked his fingers away. It was automatic.

“You going to stay long?” Antonio said, placing the ruby liquid on the bar in itsfussy cylindrical glass.

“Depends on her.” George said, tipping his head towards Roxy.

Antonio rolled his eyes and shook his head as if to say, I know. I wouldn’t want to sit next to that either.

Roxy’s back stiffened. Slowly, with dignity, she gathered up herself and her bag and walked out of the bar. She didn’t look back and George didn’t follow. Coward, he said to himself. Coward.

But no matter how much wine he drank he could not go after her. He could feel a window closing, could hear its creak, but his body had grown roots. He sat there, pinned like an insect, a desiccated husk. Not one of his former neighbours approached him but he could feel them, hovering just beyond his peripheral vision. He was a deserter and therefore an enemy. They were waiting for him to make a mistake.

“Heading home?” Antonio asked at closing.

George looked down at his car keys on the bar. He’d forgotten that places like Antonio’s never stayed open late.

“Better get a cab.” He said, his consonants fuzzy.

The taxi smelled like Durban curry, her favourite. His heart lurched. He had to get home. What had he been thinking, staying out like this? He’d only made it worse.

“Where to?” The cabbie said.

“I need to buy a bottle of something.” George said. She’d taken the house key. They still only had one. Maybe if he turned up with a present she’d let him in. He’d apologise again; he’d find a way to make her see. He would do better next time, he would.If she let him in.

Kate Fitzpatrick

kate
Kate Fitzpatrick is a digital publisher, educational blogger and short story author. She grew up in Melbourne and began writing in high school. After a post-university flirtation with asset management, she joined the educational publishing world in 2010 and is currently finishing a novel with the Curtis Brown writing course. She lives in London with her husband and their cat, Todd. Find her on Twitter @KateFitzP.
If you enjoyed The Coward, leave a comment and let Kate know.
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Read Kate’s Previously published short story:

The Cherry-and-Almond Pudding

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