I shouldn’t take this job, it’s, it wouldn’t be right Leonard thought to himself as he gingerly rubbed his bristly chin, and wrapped his fingers around his few tufts of coarse cocoa coloured hair. He slapped his laptop screen down and pushed away from the table, as his hands gripped the armrests indecisively before he belatedly stood up. He left the bedroom and walked down the empty hallway to the bathroom, and once inside he started running the bath. Leonard rubbed his chin once more and considered shaving. He turned on his shaver, but shortly afterwards turned it off without shedding a single strip of hair. The bath filled with an arrhythmic gurgle and the room gradually became uncomfortably hot, and so he left it and returned to his bedroom to pick up his phone; he nimbly went to the messages screen and sent his wife a quick text.
I need a bit of advice, are you free to talk
Leonard paused as he waited to see if he’d receive a speedy reply, however his screen neither flashed nor vibrated and so he was forced to carry on with his day. He got in and out of his bath with little drama and returned to his laptop to check out a number of different requests and commissions. When his wife replied he was in the midst of his work, and was researching an article for eight to ten year old children titled: Howard Carter and the Pharaoh’s Curse. He paused to take a sip of his tea and to check her response.
Stuck in meetings all day, is it urgent?
Nope, I’ll see you when you get home
He carried on at a steady pace for the next few hours, and it didn’t take him too long to finish the article. He was even able to proof read and submit it for review, before it was time to pick up Marley from school. He changed from his comfy red joggers, into jeans and a green, paisley patterned shirt before grabbing his car keys and leaving.
The drive to the school wasn’t particularly taxing and he was able to miss most of the school traffic by taking a windy, meandering route to St. Bartholomew’s. Yet during the habitually uneventful twenty minute drive he found himself to be mildly irritable, and quite unfocussed on the road. He felt a specific yet benign sort of frustration; as though he had hay fever, despite the fact that he didn’t have hay fever, or as though he had forgotten his glasses, despite the fact that he had never worn them. Indeed Leonard was gripped by this tiny irritation, in that he wasn’t peeved by anything in particular that had happened on the road, but rather by something he had forgotten at home. That concerning commission…no there was no point in thinking about it, because he wouldn’t accept it. He had arrived at St Bartholomew’s and so he parked in his regular spot; some thirty metres away and opposite the church. Normally he would wait for Marley inside his car, but for whatever reason he decided to wait outside the school gates instead. The school bell rung shrilly and obnoxiously, and even as a grown man he felt relieved by that pointed sound. He watched as Marley wandered outside the gate with an absentmindedness that caused him to miss his father, and he continued down the street towards the family car. Leonard watched him with a curious grin which quickly turned into a concerned one, as he felt a weirdness about his son’s mindless obedience:
Just head straight to the car Marl, I’ll always be parked right beside the church. Ok?
His oft repeated command echoed inside his oddly taught and furrowed head; moreover he considered that hidden inside this mess of parents herding their children home, anyone could be watching Marley. Any sort of kind and loving, or wicked and malicious person could be camouflaged in this most child friendly of spaces…
“Marl,” he called and his son spun around before running back to him.
“Dad! What you come all the way to the school gates for?”
“Just didn’t feel like waiting in the car, how was school today?”
“It’s alright, what’s for dinner?” His son asked as they walked towards the car together, they both opened their doors at the same time and his son bounced into the front seat. Leonard heard the satisfying click of a seat belt and followed suit with his own.
“Have a guess,” Leonard muttered as his feet played with the pedals and his hands fiddled with the gear stick before they started to pick up speed.
“Not pizza guess again,”
“McDonald’s?” His son asked with an uncertain grin.
“During the middle of the week? Definitely not!” Leonard scoffed audibly, however as he thought about it the suggestion became more appealing. After all one of the main drawbacks of working at home was that you were still at work when you wanted to rest, and you were still at home when you wanted to work. Consequently he leapt at any and every chance he had to loiter outside of their flat.
“Fish and chips?” Marley asked to which Leonard nodded his head.
“Why not? We’ll grab something for mum as well,” he acquiesced much to his son’s joy. Since his decision had been made he took a right at the roundabout instead of carrying on straight, as that would have taken them away from the high street and closer to home, and after a few more minutes of driving he found a parking spot in front of the nearby Sainsbury’s.
“How much time do we get here Marl?” Leonard asked as his son strained to read the sign.
“Can’t see,” he muttered in reply, “one, twooo…”
“Go out and have a closer look,” Leonard instructed as he checked his pockets to make sure that he hadn’t again dropped something, as he would routinely drop his keys or phone down the side of the front seat as he left the car. The door slammed shut as his son ran over to the sign and craned his head upwards, and he placed his hands across his eyes to block out the sun. Leonard had finished checking his pockets and so he closed the door and locked his car; he then sauntered the short way to join his son.
“We can stay here for one hour,”
“So what time do we have to be back by?” Leonard asked as he checked his own watch, making sure that he knew the answer before his son replied.
“Don’t know what the time is…”
“Come on check your watch,”
“Ugh but I’ve already been in school, I thought we were getting fish chips and now you’re making me do maths,”
“Come on Marl,” Leonard insisted in a flat and flattened tone of voice, to which his son moaned something incomprehensible before checking his watch.
“It’s ten to three,”
“You mean ten past three,”
“Yeah, yeah so we have to be back at ten to four,”
“You mean ten past four” Leonard again corrected as Marley squinted at his watch before he nodded slowly, as a cog whirred inside his mind and a little squib of understanding lodged itself into his long term memory. They walked away from the car and across the car park as they ventured towards one of the nearby café’s that lined the high street. Leonard watched as Marley stared downwards at his watch and blurted out his sporadic findings.
“So if it was at the three it would be fifteen past, and if it was at the four it would be twenty past…” he continued like this as they made their way to the Millennium Café. They went inside and sat down at a small booth in the corner, the tablecloth had a red checked pattern and the faded, brown leather seat had popped at its lowest seam; a little pod of fluffy stuffing could be seen out of the corner of one’s eye. The café itself was long but quite narrow and was far brighter at the front, where the windows let in an ample amount of sunlight their cost effective bulbs couldn’t match at the back. The place had a mild hum as a number of the tables were occupied by other people; next to their booth an elderly man shakily pulled a cup of coffee to his lips, and winced at the heat before putting it down. Further on four women, dressed in the same red suits, debated loudly about the sins and successes of a coalition government they all seemed largely indifferent to. A slim clean shaven waiter came over to their table, and his prominent Adam’s apple shuddered as he gulped before speaking.
“What would you like?” He asked in an aged, hoarse Polish accent which belied his youngish features, and it was only after looking at his large ears, and the speckled grey hair that lined them, that Leonard realised that he was probably a fair bit older than himself.
“Can I have a large cod with chips please; Marl what do you want?”
“Can I have pancakes?”
“Sorry no pancakes now, only for the breakfast menu,” their waiter replied as he flicked the pencil in his hand against the table, and Marley blushed before sinking his head behind the menu.
“Marl?” Leonard asked, to which his son offered a quiet grunt in reply “can he have the chicken nuggets with chips from the kids menu?”
“No problem boss, anything else?”
“Can I also get a second cod and chips to take away?”
“Order the takeaway at the end boss, any drinks?” he asked.
“Can I have a tea and an orange juice? Thanks,” Leonard replied as the waiter scooped up their menus and stomped away, and he was left to consider what he would say to console his deflated son as he looked around the restaurant idly. He knew that Marley felt embarrassed about picking from the wrong menu, and probably wouldn’t want to talk much for the rest of the meal. Leonard had been the same when he was younger and yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, he had been unable to cure his son of the same crippling shyness. It was also due to this fear of being publically ridiculed that Marley’s love of school had started to wane, and had become a grudging indifference; indeed his son attended school like a sickly person might drink a particularly pungent medicine to cure a stomach ache.
“How was school today?”
“You already asked dad,” he mumbled after which he lifted up his head and shuffled in his seat, “I need to use the toilet.”
“Can you see the sign?” Leonard asked as he pointed to it, Marley nodded and he skipped off his chair and ventured towards it. The door was a plastic red which swung easily enough, and as Marley disappeared behind it another man emerged from it afterwards. He had paint stained trousers and he patted his hands on his thighs gingerly before leaving the café, Leonard watched him through the window as he spat on to the floor and grabbed his crotch before heading on his way with a heavy, bobbing jaunt. Leonard took an immediate and absurd dislike to the stranger, one which he didn’t see fit to analyse and yet he felt a little lump of his own rise in his throat. He hastily squeezed past the table and followed his son inside the toilet. The urinals had a stench and a sheen that suggested recent use, and the tiles immediately beneath them had a puddle much like a toddler’s dribble beneath it. The toilet was empty.
“Marley?” Leonard uttered anxiously, but heard nothing in reply. However as a sudden and sickening panic started to cause creases in his forehead, a flushing toilet interrupted his fretting; his son had been using a cubicle.
“Dad, did you say something?”
“No, yes just remember to wash your hands,” he said as his son went straight to the taps and squirted far too much lotion into his hands. It took far longer than it should have for him to wash it all out, and by the time they had returned to their table their food had already arrived.
“Do you want any ketchup?” Leonard asked, to which Marley nodded his head so he went to the side and he grabbed a bottle of ketchup and a bottle of mayonnaise. He squeezed a blob onto Marley’s plate and then squeezed a blob onto his own, after which he picked up the bottle of mayonnaise and did the same.
“You should mix them,” Marley suggested.
“No, no you can’t do that Marl, you have to keep the ketchup for the cod and the mayonnaise for the chips.” Leonard explained as he placed a chip between the two globs to further illustrate his point.
“No you’re weird,” he replied as he stuck out his tongue and Marley gasped. His son then grabbed a chicken nugget and mixed the two sauces together, laughing as he did so. Leonard laughed too and felt a deeper satisfaction that his son had forgotten his earlier embarrassment and was back to being his gregarious self. Once they had both finished he ordered a second portion of fish and chips to take home with them, and they left shortly afterwards. They were home a good twenty minutes before ten past four.
Leonard was forced to park his car slightly further from their apartment than he would have liked, because the best parking spots had been taken. He made an audible scoffing noise as he unclipped his seat belt and opened the door to step outside, as Marley did the same in a wordless routine. His son ran up the first nine steps before jumping up the tenth, leaving Leonard to skip up them to keep the pace. He locked his car door with the remote before finding his door key and inserting it into the lock; the key was a muted, rust colour and had to be squeezed into the lock before it clicked. They lived in an apartment owned by a surly Irishman named Paddy Coyne, sandwiched on the middle floor between two other families. Gary Olsen and his wife Susan lived on the bottom floor, and were an elderly couple who troubled no one and mostly kept to themselves three hundred and sixty-four days of the year. The other two days that they bucked this trend were Christmas Eve and Good Friday, wherein the elderly couple would annually invite their neighbours to join them on their way to mass, and for the last few years Leonard had accepted. He had taken an immediate liking to Gary whose gravelly voice and obliviousness reminded him of his late grandfather. The floor below their one housed Amnat and Priya Wonjongkam along with their seventeen-year-old son Khaosai, a boy whom Marley looked up to and had increasingly started to emulate. Leonard was intermittently bothered by his son’s choice of hero, often shushing his concerns as little more than jealousy.
“Marley come back,” Leonard called as he noticed his son slink downstairs out of the corner of his eye, no doubt hoping to see if Khaosai was about.
“I’m coming,” he mumbled as he re-joined his father and they entered their apartment proper. Marley ran across the shiny wood-panelled floor and into his bedroom, leaving the door ajar as he changed out of his school uniform. Their apartment was small but spacious; the kitchen, living room and dining areas were all a part of the same large open room. The bathroom and bedrooms splintered off of the sides of the main body, like the handles and basket of a bicycle. Leonard headed to the kitchen counter and placed his wife’s dinner on a plate, before placing it in the microwave and closing the door. The food was still warm and so he didn’t turn on the machine, instead he left it in the closed compartment in order to delay the cool air from chilling it. There was after all nothing worse than cold chips. He heard a busy shuffle coming from downstairs and leaned over the counter to find his fiancée.
“You’re home early,” Leonard quipped as his head rested on his hands.
“I had another training session today.”
“Oh really? What was it on?”
“Management and marketing,” she uttered as her fingers formed quotation marks, and she busily removed her coat and headed into their bedroom. She continued talking but he couldn’t quite hear her as her pacing, and a number of slapping drawers, muffled her speech.
“Marley, mum’s home,” she called interrupting her barely audible rant, and their son left his bedroom to enter theirs. Moments later her emerged and returned to his room.
“I heard none of that by the way,” Leonard chuckled as his wife put on the kettle, and sighed to no one in particular.
“To be honest it wasn’t very interesting anyway.”
“Right,” Leonard replied, as a short silence hung before Marianna continued.
“It’s very frustrating because I don’t need to be attending training sessions and business seminars. I mean I know I am not the most experienced team leader in the gym, but I am ready to take over. We’ve got a month before Lola leaves and I’m getting really stressed out about it.”
“I remember you saying that you think she’s just going to leave without doing a proper handover,” Leonard added to an approving nod from his partner.
“And I still feel that way, I mean I need to be in the centre familiarising myself with the member accounts and the financial reports rather than heading out on these generic seminars. Also I feel like the members and trainers need to see that Lola trusts me to take over,” she paused again and closed her eyes before shaking her head. The kettle popped and he watched her as she poured out two cups of coffee.
“Is Jeremy still being a prat?”
“Oh yes, he is definitely going to leave once Lola is gone,” she smirked as she idly stirred both cups. She carried both to the coffee table and they sat down in front of the television, Leonard popped on the console and they took turns pounding each other on a fighting game they had both taking a liking to. Leonard heard a wispy sound as Marley ran out in front of the sofa and lied down on his belly in front of the screen. The afternoon passed like this until the room greyed and the television suddenly brightened, causing Leonard to wince. He lazily reached out a hand to turn on the nearby lamp, and doing so illuminated the sleeping silhouette of Marley. Leonard smiled.
“I don’t know what to do,” he muttered as he suddenly paused the adventure game they had since started playing.
“Maybe we should retrace our steps, I’m sure you can jump onto that ledge,”
“That’s not what I meant, it’s…I received a strange commission today.”
“It was from Alby at Foster’s Curriculum Guides. You know how I’ve been updating their A-Level Law book with contemporary cases right? Well Alby used to work for a law firm so not only does he know his stuff, he’s been a lot more finicky with my submissions and has more often than not been picking cases he wants me to research and analyse. Which you know is fine, it makes the research phase easier, but well-”
“He wants me to research a particular manslaughter case: R Vs Ayodele (20XX). The thing is I knew both the perpetrator and the victim of that case; the criminal was a guy called Paulie.”
“That’s a bit surreal, would you find it weird to write about it?”
“I definitely would I mean it’s not my place to dissect something like that, to write about it as if I never knew them would feel extremely fake and disrespectful. It seems a bit exploitative?”
“Is it really any less exploitative than what you do anyway, I mean you didn’t know them that well did you? It’s not something you’ve ever mentioned before.”
“No I guess I didn’t, do you want a drink?” He asked as he handed the controller to his wife and she nodded her head. He stood up and walked over to the fridge, and as he opened the door he paused to allow the cold whiteness to press against him. He lingered in front of the bone coloured light of the fridge, and it illuminated his face softly in the dark recesses of the kitchen corner. He fingered a can of coke before picking it up more decisively and snapping it open, however instead of drinking it he started to dribble a small amount down the drain.
“I did know them,” he muttered.
“What?” Mariana cried amidst the jingle of an ‘end of mission’ score screen, “I told you we had to go back to the ledge, look at what your timewasting has done to our score!”
“Well it’s not my fault I didn’t know what ledge you were talking about; we were on a mountain so there were at least twenty different ledges!” He rebutted with a cheery grin on his face, before taking a sip from the half empty can.