She watched the car pull up to the side of the station, positioning itself noncommittally by the black wrought iron gate that lined the main road. She spotted it immediately. It’s light blue body distinct against the dense, suffocating rain that obscured the other nondescript vehicles; opaque slabs of colour that were sliding in and out of the carpark like Tetris blocks, locking into place. It was a convertible, an antique 1969 Chevrolet Corvette. Entirely unsuitable for the Scottish weather. The smug shine of the paint seemed to scream madly: Look at me! I don’t belong here. I am different. Alien! Unique!
Beautiful, American, happy!
Happy. Happy. Happy.
She ran towards the car, leaving the sanctuary of the pebble dash awning, her jacket hanging heavy on her head. When she was near enough to be in view, the driver’s door popped open and a body swung out into the rain, feet firmly set inside, so it was raised up, arched out, calling wildly towards her. Even in the downpour, Jack was unmistakable. He was wearing an expensive two-button suit, a deep navy, that was fast becoming sodden. Darkened pools spreading across the fabric. He seemed to delight in the spectacle.
‘Em, darling. There you are.’
Instinctively she ran to his side, standing awkwardly beside him so that he was forced to lean down and kiss both her cheeks. He smelt of cigarette smoke and the metallic residue of ale. The scent fused with the damp air to give off a clammy sweetness. She was suddenly conscious of her appearance. The rain had stuck syrupy to her hair in tangled matted strings, and she could feel her cheeks, hot and flushed, burning against the inside lining of her jacket that was still limply clinging to her head.
‘Bloody fucker, this weather. Get inside the beast before you drown to death.’
Emily ran across to the passenger side, throwing her backpack on the sofa seat behind, and relaxing into the cushioning leather. She was grateful he hadn’t decided to do anything crazy like open the roof for her arrival. This was the sort of thing he would spontaneously indulge in, especially when Emily was around. She was aware she was an unhealthy fixation for him, a bad incentive who would momentarily remind him of his heyday and cause him to partake in all manner of odd behaviour. In many other respects he was an entirely functioning member of society. Although, Emily supposed, that could be said of an awful lot of maniacs.
Inside, the deafening sound of the rain had subsided to a muffled drumming. It felt to Emily that cotton wool balls had been stuffed into her ears to relieve the relentless thrashing of the outside. The car was compact, a small shoebox of a space. It had always evaded her why anyone would spend extortionate amounts of cash on an historic steel cage, when they could enjoy the spacious luxury of modernity. Surely the point of innovation was that we were always progressing. Making the old better. Fine-tuning the past to produce a more effective, superior model. But that was Jack. A wistful romantic who enjoyed the trappings of nostalgia. He would rather spend his entire fortune on sentimental nonsense, than invest in a fully operational product. This was the sort of strange behaviour that seemed exclusive to rich people, she thought.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘On we go.’
It was a short drive to the restaurant. Jack had decided it made more sense to go straight to lunch, and drop Emily’s bag off at his flat later. She was only there for a night, so it was best to get the most out of her visit. Jack’s apartment was located on the outskirts of Edinburgh’s city centre. He had another larger property in Leith, but he was yet to take Emily there. Although he had promised, often and insistently. Their lunch detour also saved Emily from being able to dry off and at least appear semi-presentable, but that wasn’t the sort of thing that would occur to Jack.
The restaurant was situated in a renovated castle that now doubled as a boutique hotel. The entrance was carved from tablets of stone that jigsawed up the wall in mosaic patterns. Emily could already tell she was underdressed. She watched as Jack flicked down the visor and pushed his damp hair back, the water gelling his hair so it appeared slick around the curves of his head.
He had booked a table, but it was clear on their arrival he hadn’t needed to bother. The maître d’ referred to Jack by his first name, his thick Scottish accent curling around the hard consonants, and shaking his hand with animated vigour. Jack placed his free palm on the man’s upper arm, suggesting a well-worn familiarity that stuck tacky to their clothes like wet glue.
‘Graeme, I’d like you to meet Emily. She’s an important friend of mine.’ Jack extenuated the word important as though it had some double meaning. His voice sounded crisper, more refined and notably British in the company of their Scot friend. In response, Graeme gave a sharp nod, and took them to a secluded table towards the back. The restaurant was fitted with traditional oak-panelling, burgundy tapestries with thick gold lining strung up, concealing the building’s original features in a theatrical pretence of history. The room had a chalky smell that pressed in on them and gave Emily the sensation of being slightly drunk.
‘Brilliant. Thank you, Graeme,’ Jack said, seating himself on the varnished antique chair. Jack liked to use people’s names. He did it in a way that suggested a self-possessed ease, but everything about Jack had an air of effort. His manner was one of curated perfection. He adapted the octave of his speech depending on the emotion he was trying to convey, which often materialised in musical lilts. His voice gave the same impression as a thespian performing a vocal warm-up. At times it seemed to Emily that he was standing stretched up on the tips of his toes to make sure he could be completely seen. He ordered them a bottle of champagne, the name of which Emily didn’t recognise, although she could tell by the way he spoke that it was expensive.
‘I suppose he thinks you’re a lady friend of mine,’ Jack said, laughing when they had finally been left alone. He seemed to enjoy the perversion in this misunderstanding, although Emily doubted that this was in fact what anyone would have thought. He was nearly three times her age, but that was not what Emily found implausible about the presumption. Jack often dated women much younger than himself, and she imagined he had sat at that same table with a catalogue of female companions. Her mother had once described Jack’s girlfriends as expensive ornaments strung up on his being like jewellery. But Emily wasn’t exactly Jack’s type. For starters, she was dressed in Urban Outfitters’ dungarees – one strap left loose over a graphic tee that had the print of an 80s band she’d retrospectively googled –and her black puffer jacket was squeezed awkwardly between her lower back and the wooden chair. If it wasn’t for their previously established relationship, Jack probably wouldn’t have looked at her twice.
Most likely they assumed he was her father. A secret love child he’d spend extravagant amounts of money on at fancy dinners, only not to call again for months. She considered this, rolling the idea over in her mind and shaping it into satisfying positions. She supposed he could be an older business colleague taking her out on a work lunch for an annual appraisal or well-earned promotion. Although she hardly appeared the professional type. She was in her second year of university, a fact signposted by her ill-advised The Smiths graphic tee. The most obvious assumption was that he was her father. This thought gave her a deep and violent thrill that sat pleasurably on her chest.
Jack raised his glass, holding it mid-air until Emily mirrored him. The bubbles were still fizzing lightly, sinking down into the crystal gild of the champagne.
‘To old friends,’ he said, their glasses colliding with some force. He’s probably already drunk, she thought. Her mother was better at recognising this in Jack. Often when he would arrive at their house, his car pulling brazenly into their drive, she would say, ‘Jesus, he’s drunk.’ before he had even stepped out of the vehicle. Then she would give an affected sigh, the corner of her eye catching with Emily’s father, who’s responsibility it was, although Emily was always unsure why.
Emily took a generous mouthful of champagne, enjoying the tart indulgence of it. She allowed Jack to order bowls of starters to share, and to guide her into ordering the steak tartare for main. This was not something she had ever tried, and instantly regretted upon its presentation, the slimy centre of the yolk balancing daintily on the raw strings of meat. The conversation flowed with glib ease, and before they had finished their mains Jack had already ordered a second bottle. She could tell he was drunk now, or at least she was drunk, her eyes slippery against the concrete exterior of the room.
‘I hear you’ve been getting into a bit of trouble,’ Jack said, dunking torn pieces of bread into the oil residue on his plate.
‘Not really. It wasn’t an especially big deal.’ This was true. Emily and a few friends had broken into one of the lecture halls on campus after a hockey social. Plenty of students did it, they were just unlucky enough to get caught. They hadn’t really gotten into too much trouble. They just had to make a formal apology and agree to clean up any damage made to campus grounds. The university also wrote to their parents.
‘Breaking and entering. Sounds like something your Dad and I would get up to,’ Jack continued, his eyebrows raising in a salute of pride.
Emily smiled, giddy from the champagne and the spontaneous mention of her father. Jack and her father had known each other from childhood, both attending a private boy’s boarding school near London. There was a photo framed in Emily’s living room from their time there. The two of them, arms around each other’s necks, fresh-faced fifteen-year olds in starched blue blazers and obnoxious stripped ties. She had seen it almost every day growing up. Her father used to say they were bonded in blood and spit. Emily always thought that sounded quite macabre, but he actually just meant rugby. Neither of them liked the sport, but they were forced to play, spending long hot summers out on the field, greasy from the mud and sweat that would melt on their foreheads and burn into their eyes.
Her father was a bulkier build, and an average player, although he found no enjoyment in it. Jack was not blessed with the same athletic disposition. It was something he had been mercilessly tormented for, boys shoving Jack’s thirteen-year-old head in the sports lockers, smashing the steel doors against his ears till they bled. It was her father who had stopped them. He had joined the school a few years after Jack and was generally well-liked. Once, when Jack had come over for dinner at Emily’s family home, he had told the story of her father stopping this particular form of brutalisation by grabbing one of the boys by his collar and smashing his face into the lockers, breaking his nose. Emily found this delightfully heroic. Her mother did not.
‘I reckon we got up to a lot worse,’ Jack said, winking at her. Emily enjoyed how Jack spoke about her father. Mostly she just heard about how he had become disassociated, closing himself off from the outside world. These comments would be accompanied with a pitying pat on the knee or squeeze of her shoulders, that would leave Emily feeling as if her body had been drained of all its internal life, forcefully scraped out so it was an absent, fleshy cage. It was only Jack who still saw him as that school boy; their arms tightly wound around one another, grinning for the photo.
Emily’s father had killed himself three summer ago. Everyone expected her to be very upset about it at the time. Searching her face for hidden traces of grief or misplaced rage, attempting to satisfy their own diluted confusion in her more palpable sickness. But recently there had been an expectation that she should be less sad about it. Now that two Christmases had passed, birthdays had been celebrated, exams had been taken, and she had moved on to the ostentatious halls of university. Emily thought regularly about how grief was expected to perform. Shown in radiant bursts, a glorious technicolour of emotion. Then packed away in tight, convenient boxes, only to be sampled at certain anniversaries or during the appropriate family lunch. But it wasn’t like this with Jack. He never demanded a physical manifestation of grief through which he could exercise his own. There was plenty about Jack that mystified Emily, but she was aware they shared this small, intrinsic understanding.
‘Your Mum was a bit worried about it, I will say.’
‘She thinks I’m acting out,’ Emily responded, finishing the ends of her drink which prompted Jack to start refilling before she’d even set the glass down. Emily’s mother had divorced her father a few years before his suicide and held an exhausting guilt that would manifest in micromanaging Emily’s every action. This form of aggressive attention had resulted in Emily saying ‘I’m fine’ in incessant loops until the words had begun to sound like a dull, oscillating noise.
‘Hmm,’ Jack sounded, his lips pressed inwards with a knowing smile, ‘I think she’s just concerned.’
‘Well she can get concerned about anything if we let her,’ Emily replied, her voice taking on an uncharacteristic inflection of superiority. Jack laughed at this, an earnest bellowing laugh. Emily enjoyed being the cause of Jack’s amusement. He had a magnetic presence that gave his approval some kind of mystical weight, and she often found herself imagining quips or anecdotes that might entertain him.
Jack was from an inordinately wealthy family, although neither of his parents were good people; or at least Jack didn’t seem to think so. He was prone to embellish. When referring to his father he usually went into a faux Scottish accent and said ‘that bastard’ with dramatic gusto. Jack’s father was Scottish, although Jack had successfully bled any trace of an accent from his own dialect, adopting instead the tight finesse of private school. He had been raised in Leith, and when Jack was eleven, he had been shipped off to board. He nurtured a fraught relationship with his parents, tending to it daily, but still agreed to work at his father’s firm. A decision Emily’s own father had said was due to financial prudence. Her mother thought this made Jack a hypocrite.
Emily imagined the boarding school was full of boys a similar ilk to Jack. A sea of entitled children whose parents owned properties in South Africa or Tuscany. She couldn’t picture her father in a place like that. He had grown up in a small bungalow on a Watford housing estate, where he’d spend his summer holidays doing wheelies round the grounds, whilst classmates were jetting off to the Italian coast. Emily’s grandmother was a school assistant and had what her father described as ‘house pride’, so he’d hardly come from some deprived childhood. Still, he wasn’t your traditional boarding school student. His tuition was paid for by his father, whom Emily presumed was from money although they never spoke of him. It had been a short-lived affair which had inadvertently resulted in pregnancy, and the tuition was effectively hush money. Emily sometimes wondered if her grandfather had been someone important. A renowned politician or money launder for an infamous Russian mobster. Although he was probably just a banker.
It was Emily’s father who should have been the public-school misfit. But there was something unfamiliar about Jack that made him stand out from the other boys. He had a wilful desire to be liked, a weakness they could smell like blood in the water. Her father, by comparison, was a traditional, red-blooded male who could carry a ball across a field and drink pints of lager in one extended gulp, the juice dribbling down his chin victoriously. There was a gentleness about him. He spoke slowly and frugally, as if he was considering where to place each word. But he had a hulking, robust frame and a deep, gravelly voice that gave the allusion of confidence.
Then, a month before his forty-seventh birthday, watched by a busy platform of bleary-eyed morning commuters, he had stepped in front of the 7.15 train to Euston. Emily had stayed at his flat the night before, an apartment in a high-rise he’d been renting since the divorce. They had lain together on his new waxy leather sofa, shoulder to shoulder, chewing pellets of popcorn and watching a Harrison Ford disaster movie directed by a man named Wolfgang Petersen. Emily had found the name Wolfgang peculiar. ‘It’s like a thug name,’ she had said at the time. ‘You know, the kind that a mobster would give themselves to look threatening.’ Her father had agreed mindlessly, focusing on the actor’s nimble movements. It was the only thing she remembered saying to him that night.
The September following his death, Emily had taken up running. She ran on the backroads of her small county town. Winding through side streets, the hard-tarmac colliding with her knees. Sometimes she’d be gone for most of the day. She could find endless routes to navigate, unfamiliar concrete stretches out of reach from the grinding throngs of the centre. She would run until she got sick.
Once when running through a neighbouring hamlet, she had come across a deserted car. It was a metallic red, an ugly bloodshot colour, littered with oak catkins and parked up on a mound of overgrown grass. The edges of the paint had begun to rust along the thin lip of the steel. Emily had stared at the car until the inflamed skin began to blind her. Then, in an impulsive act of violence, she had taken a rock and thrown it hard at the windshield. The rock had sliced through the glass with a sickly cracking sound. The alarm screamed out, gaudy like a foghorn. She had stood there, waiting for someone to arrest her or whatever they usually did with vandalisers. No one came. After a while, she had thrown another rock. Then another. The repetitive shrill thumping of the alarm numbing her until it felt as if she were deep underwater.
She never told anyone about the incident, only Jack. He had visited during her first week of university, and she had told him with the clinical detachedness of a medic providing details of a surgery. Jack had said it sounded like the most exciting thing that had happened to the car in months. At the time, Emily had felt a heady wave of relief, like releasing a dead weight she’d been carrying, crippling inside her stomach. But now Jack’s knowledge made her feel unstable, as though he had something that he could hold over her, making her do anything. He was unpredictable, even her father had known that. But Jack had never said anything. It had been two years and he’d never once referred to the incident, even to Emily.
After they finished their meal, Jack settled the bill. The rain had stopped and as they walked outside the air had a clean crispness about it, like a thin film had been pulled from its body, removing the excess filth and exposing a fresh layer of tender skin. Jack headed towards the parked Corvette, now glimmering with dewy residue.
‘Are you kidding?’ Emily asked, an incredulous look appearing on her face.
‘No, right you are. Just going to move the blighter somewhere where the bastards won’t ticket me. Stay here a moment.’ She watched as he jumped into the driver’s seat, kindled by the lingering froth of champagne. Once he was out of sight, Emily closed her eyes and leant her head lightly against the stone wall. The moisture of the air soothed the pressure that had been building inside her head, and a pleasing blankness entered her. She enjoyed her spontaneous dinners with Jack. They had only begun since her father’s death, and were always impromptu and seemingly without purpose. Jack travelled often for work, and sometimes he would text to see if she could endure a day trip to whatever nondescript city he had found himself in, as if overcome with a spontaneous desire to see her. Anywhere across the Scottish border constituted a short distance as far as Jack was concerned. Come brighten up this hell hole, he would message, along with a photo of a derelict carpark or neglected, greyish council estate. He was perpetually dramatic.
She wasn’t sure what had prompted his sudden interest in her. At first, she’d assumed it was out of service to her father. Though recently Emily had begun to suspect he enjoyed these visits. Often convincing her to stay for one final drink or try an essential local delicacy; a definition attributed to anything from a fried Mars to an aged malt whiskey. Mostly, it was Jack who arranged these outings, but it had been Emily who’d invited herself to Edinburgh. She had texted Jack the night of the vandalised lecture hall, sat on one of the plastic chairs at the back of the auditorium, guarded by a lackey administrative assistant whilst the relevant heads of department were notified. It had been the early hours of the morning, but Jack replied almost immediately.
Emily found something calming about spending time with Jack. His erratic behaviour made her feel stable, like a fixed screw on a compass that the magnetic needle spun madly round. Her father had been the centring fixture before, where Jack would unfailingly return. Often, he would show up at their home unannounced, a bottle in hand, demanding her father’s unequivocal attention.
Emily thought of this as she watched Jack run back across the cobbled crossing. She could feel herself steadying at his sight, surprising herself with the neediness of it.
They got a cab back to Jack’s apartment. The lightness of the afternoon burnt with a fresh energy, and the rest of the day stretched lazily out in front of them. Emily had briefly visited once before, but never to stay. Jack lived on the top floor of a private apartment block. The far living room wall was enveloped with a wide sheet of glass, boasting a panoramic view of the city. Inside, there was a stillness, as if the room was awaiting Jack’s instruction. There were stacks of papers on the coffee table, and three of Jack’s overcoats hanging on wooden hooks by the door. Everything appeared as if placed to give the impression of life.
Jack suggested Emily call her mother to let her know she’d arrived safely. She used his landline whilst he disappeared into the kitchen to fix them a drink. Her mother picked up on the first ring. Emily felt inexplicably nervous that her mother could tell she’d been drinking, but if she did, she never said anything. Instead they endured a wooden discussion about the train journey and the stringy tartare. Emily’s mind drifted drowsily, hitting the necessary beats of the conversation like rehearsed dialogue.
Towards the end of the call, amidst undecipherable sounds Emily had begun to make to conclude their conversation, her mother said abruptly, ‘You sound like him, you know.’ The plastic receiver was now pressed up against Emily’s ear, cushioned by her shoulder, as Jack silently passed her a gin and tonic. Her mother’s voice sounded tinny and distant through the phone.
‘Like who?’ She asked, only half paying attention. She was watching Jack light a cigarette, blowing ashy smoke out the open window.
‘Who’d you think. Your father used to be the same. Go out with him for five minutes and he’d be saying all sorts of nonsense about the texture of his steak. Things he never usually said. Words that weren’t his.’
Emily closed her eyes, folding them tightly within themselves until she could feel the sharp pulsating of blood. ‘Maybe that was the way he actually spoke,’ she said, her thoughts finding their way in the dark, ‘and he just changed around you.’ Her mother was silent on the other end. She could feel her own breath, hot and heavy on the receiver. ‘Listen, I’ve got to go,’ she added, her cheeks fiery with embarrassment as she felt Jack’s gaze moving leisurely towards her.
‘All good?’ Jack asked when she had hung up. Emily nodded, sipping on her drink. It was weak, suffocated with ice, but the fizz of the tonic made her feel lightheaded.
‘She sends her love,’ she said after a moment, as if to end a line of enquiry that Jack didn’t seem particularly interested in pursuing. She began to move aimlessly around the room, distracting herself with a stack of old DVDs left out by the corner cabinet. She moved her hands across the plastic, fanning them out to reveal each cover. They were old favourites of her father’s, dated Sci-Fi films that Jack had begun to collect. He was in the habit of lending them to Emily.
‘I found a few more in some boxes up in Leith. Thought you could take them back. Not sure if you have a DVD player in your halls. Do people still have those?’
Emily nodded. ‘Laptop.’ Her eyes traced the weathered covers, neon colours emblazoned across the front.
‘Right. Well take your pick. We can watch one tonight if you fancy.’ Jack looked at his watch as if to check the time, although it was still light outside. She could smell cigarette smoke drifting from the window where Jack was perched. A familiar, sooty balm.
‘We can watch one now if you like?’ she said quietly.
Jack looked at her quizzically, his cigarette poised stoically in his mouth. She could feel his eyes on her, but she forced herself not to move her gaze up to meet him. A burning sensation had begun to build into the edges of her eyes, and she pressed her lips inwards as if to focus her attention. She could not imagine anything more humiliating than crying in front of Jack.
‘Fire up the box,’ Jack said after a moment, his voice gently swinging in that lyrical way that calmed her. ‘If we start now, we can get the good half of a marathon going.’
She took A Clockwork Orange from its case, placing the worn disc in the player Jack had salvaged along with the DVDs from his family home in Leith. He had inherited the property from his parents. Emily could still remember the night Jack’s father died. A startling, vivid memory amongst other clouded static. She’d been nine. Their landline had rung in the middle of the night, and she’d heard her father talking careful, steady words on the phone in the hall. He had spoken for around ten minutes before he hung up and collected the car keys from the cabinet drawer. She’d listened to the engine ignite from her bedroom, the sound of him driving off in the dark.
‘I’ll come,’ he had said on the phone. ‘Text me where you are. I’ll come.’ Emily had known, even then, that it had been Jack on the other end of the line.
Jack had no siblings and his mother had died a few years before, so he inherited everything. He’d brought the Corvette almost a month after his father’s funeral, its glossy finish luminous against the grey sandstone of his youth.
It turned out there was a lot you could inherit. Money and property were regular sought-after assets, but certain mannerisms were often passed down as faded, watery souvenirs, and Emily knew you could inherit trauma if your parents were clumsy enough, tossing it around idly.
They sat in-between the large, embroidered cushions and watched as Kubrick’s Droogs stalked the screen. She twisted her neck slightly so she could watch the plot unravel across Jack’s face, his expression malleable like clay. In the privacy of the darkened lounge, his features had softened, and he appeared open, almost boyish. It reminded her of her father, the same tender look of concern. Jack’s arm dangled loosely around her. She leant her head on his shoulder, shuffling her legs until she was crawled up beside him. Her body felt buoyant, tethered only by their intertwining limbs.
‘Maybe I didn’t smash the car,’ she heard herself say, her voice barely audible over the symphonic disorder of the film. ‘Maybe I just thought it.’
Jack didn’t answer, but he squeezed her body tighter towards him, and she found herself sinking further into his chest. It occurred to her that it might be plausible to inherit friendships too, if they were preserved carefully enough. She imagined them tangled up together, sprawling out across the sofa, until they were no longer able to tell where she ended, and he began.
Eleanor Johnson is a writer and poet based in London. Her short fiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Bandit Fiction and Litro Magazine. She was recently awarded first prize in Raconteur’s Poetry Edition 2021 Contest. She has a first-class degree in English Literature from Exeter University, and currently works at a talent and literary agency.
The Sunken Man (Published in Bandit Fiction): The Sunken Man by Eleanor Johnson – Bandit Fiction
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