The Present

Submitted into Contest #86 in response to: Write a story where flowers play a central role.... view prompt

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Funny Contemporary Fiction

The WhatsApp message came with a profile picture of a Jack Russell. It could only be my daughter.

“Hi, Ronnie,” I said.

“Please go and see Mummy's play.”

"Are you going?"

"Already seen it."

I clicked on the link to a minimalist production of King Lear at a local theatre. 

I went on a Friday night and bought a beer for company. The audience consisted of grey-haired couples, the women in long skirts that occasionally flashed white trainers, the men in dark jackets and clashing cords. In 20 years I would be one of them, except probably on my own.

The woman in the next seat shook a bag of peanuts at me, then poked my ribs with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard.

“Really, I’m fine.” I smiled to prove it.

She turned her back on me for the rest of the performance.

Katie played a villain, Goneril, but I rooted for her right up until she plotted to kill her husband. She appeared to have lost weight since we had separated, although that might have been the black dress, and her hair had been chopped to chin-length. She had talked about doing this before, but perhaps had lacked the incentive.

At the end, the director mounted the stage and held her hand for the bow. Katie had gone on about his vision and intellect, and I had pictured someone skinny and bespectacled, the sort of man who picks up a book with both hands. She had never mentioned that he was better-looking than any man had a right to be. Could she have failed to pick up on it? I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, looks are subjective.

I found her chatting in the hall with her fellow actors, who appeared to have bought their clothes from charity shops. Only Katie remained in costume. Three men queued up to pay homage while their other halves loitered at a distance, respectful or otherwise. The actresses playing her sisters were queueless and scowled.

Finally, it was my turn. I stepped towards her and inhaled an unfamiliar perfume. Katie had definitely lost weight – I could see it in her hard naked arms - but the lines around her eyes remained.

Stop staring, Peter. Time to speak.

"You were great. Scary at times. I felt sorry for your husband.”

“I don't get to write the script. I just say the lines.” Her eyes flicked down to the orange Sainsbury's bag between my legs. “Thank you so much for coming.” 

“Ronnie put me up to it.”

Her face fell.

“I would have come anyway, but she let me know when it was happening. She isn’t here, is she?”

Her face softened. “She came on the opening night and said she liked it. When I asked whether there was anything she particularly enjoyed, she mentioned the ice cream.”

“Fair enough. The salted caramel was excellent.”

Katie tapped a shoe against the parquet. Shiny platform sandals with ankle straps boosted her stature by a good few inches. A nudge would have sufficed to push her over, but it was a long way down to the parquet floor.

“You haven’t changed," I said.

“Couldn’t be bothered.”

“Really?" I raised an eyebrow. "Or do you enjoy being Goneril?"

She blushed. "You know me too well.”

I curled over my lower lip. “Not sure about that. You finally went and got that haircut."

“I thought I could do with a fresh start, you know?" She gave me a searching look.

"Mmm."

Katie laid her hand on the nape of her neck and grimaced. “Too short?”

 “On the contrary.”

I would have preferred it shorter. Why hadn't she gone for a pixie cut that would have made her less attractive to men?

“It feels so good to be performing again." Katie's cheeks went slack. "I really wanted to go for it when I was younger, but I had to stay home and look after Ronnie.” Her eyes darted up to mine. “I think I was scared, too." 

“Scared? Of what?”

“Rejection.”

I turned away and took a series of shallow breaths. 

“Are you OK?” She touched my arm.

“Fine.” I looked her up and down. “You've painted your toenails." They were crimson, like her lipstick.

"It's practically compulsory with these shoes."

"Are they new?" I was running low on polite clothing conversation.

"I bought them for the production. Do you like them?"

I licked my lips. "You know, I'm really no expert. They certainly make you taller."

“Luis likes them, and he's the director. He says they make me look sexy."

"Really?" I didn't like the thought of anyone calling my wife sexy behind my back, especially a man some women might consider handsome. "I'm sure they do." Staring at her shoes and liking them were two different things. "They're striking."

"Striking? They're black."

I shrugged. "Elegant, then."

"I'll take that."

I sipped my empty beer bottle.

“Are you working again? It’s a while since I’ve seen you in a suit.” 

“Sort of.”

“I’m glad.”

Glad was what you felt about an aunt whose sciatica improved, not someone whom you had seen naked. Someone whom you would probably never see naked again. 

"How's Ronnie?"

She laughed. "Oh, you know. She's Ronnie!"

As if my daughter were a static thing, not changing every day and becoming more and more of a stranger.

"It would be nice to see her once in a while." I decided to say it. "Seems a bit unfair, otherwise. On both me and her." 

Katie fixed her smile in place, so when she spoke it was like watching a ventriloquist. "Not now. I’m trying to enjoy myself."

"When, then?"

She stamped her heel and turned to Luis. Since he had mounted the stage, I had watched to see where her eyes went. Now that they were unambiguously directed at him, it came as a relief.

"Luis, this is Peter."

He bowed, dangling a black bob that reminded me of Javier Bardem, the one Spanish actor I knew. Luis wore an emerald tunic of shot silk, baggy black fisherman's trousers and avocado suede tasselled loafers. If you looked like him you could wear what you wanted, be who you wanted, get who you wanted. No matter how hard I stared at his ring finger, no wedding band materialised.

“Her husband," I said. "Peter Hetherington.”

He turned to her. 

 “I thought your last name was Buckland.”

Katie coloured under the makeup. “That’s my maiden name. My stage name, too.”

Luis turned to me. "Nice to meet you." His accent made it sound sarcastic.

We didn’t shake hands. It seemed too conventional. Too bourgeois

“What do you do, Peter Hetherington?”

I had expected him to ask about something more Bohemian: my chakras, my star sign, any experiments with psychedelics I cared to share. 

“Working in a cafe at the moment. I was in PR.”

“So you too are playing a role." His smile seemed to mix benevolence with pity. "How does wearing the suit make you feel?"

"Fine." I looked down to check there was nothing wrong with it and found a toothpaste stain on the trousers.

"And on Monday you go back to the cafe. What do you wear for that?”

“A baseball cap and a short-sleeved shirt.”

Nobody else had asked about my uniform before. I was starting to kind of like him, despite myself. 

 “Some people wear stranger things offstage than on."

“You can talk," I said. "Looks like you blew the costume budget on yourself.” 

I picked the Sainsbury's bag off the floor.

"What's in the bag?" Katie said.

"Yeah." Luis said. "What is in the bag, Peter?"

"Nothing." My face heated up. I swallowed even though I had nothing to swallow.

Luis looked at me askance. "No-one brings an empty bag to the theatre. Or hides it behind his back."

He grabbed it and peered at the contents.

“What’s inside?” Katie said.

"Flowers.”

"Ooh!" Katie said. "What sort?"

Luis plucked out the bouquet of red roses and looked at the wrapper. "Six pounds ninety-nine."

"Are they for me?" Katie said.

"No," I said.

"Who, then?"

My throat was parched. "I thought Ronnie might be here."

"Ronnie?" Luis’s pronunciation made the name sound even more peculiar.

"My daughter."

"In Spain, a man does not give his daughter roses," Luis said.

"Nor in England," Katie said.

"They had a limited selection."

"In Sainsbury's?” Katie said. “Come on. They're for me, aren’t they? You shouldn't have."

I shrugged. "Least I could do." I summoned a one-note laugh from somewhere. "Don't actresses get a bouquet at the end of a performance?"

"No, I mean you shouldn't have. It's inappropriate."

I took a mighty breath. "Give them to someone behind the bar, then. Maybe they’ll throw them away for you, or take them home and surprise their other halves. Show them how much they love them."

She took the bag from Luis, their fingers touching during the handover. "I don't want them to go to waste, but please don't buy me flowers again."

"You love flowers," I said.

She grimaced.

“Just not from me. Fine." I grabbed the bag and marched out of the theatre.

Outside, bus headlights illuminated diagonal rain. The wind blew it in my face. What was I going to do with red roses? I shoved them in the nearest bin. It took a couple of attempts, and even then the orange bag protruded. Katie might spot it when she came out. Good. I smiled to myself in the darkness.

March 24, 2021 18:17

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