Always a Bit of a Loser
by Alex Barr
‘She looks like Ann,’ Lynette said. ‘Don’t you think?’
A photo in the paper. A sneaky shot of a movie star, shopping in Chelsea looking harassed, with ill-matched clothes put on in a hurry.
‘Ann always had that look,’ Lynette said.
A late breakfast after the school run. Matt studied the photo. The actress had straw-coloured hair and a pointed chin like Ann, but her nose was too big for the comparison.
‘Matt? You’ve gone quiet.’
‘I’m wondering what she’s doing now.’
Lynette laughed. ‘Not much, I imagine. Wasn’t she always a bit of a loser?’
Matt gathered papers and laptop into his briefcase. Lynette brushed her hair, studying her reflection. She worked part-time for a charity. She said into the mirror, ‘At least you didn’t get her pregnant.’
‘I hope not.’
‘Ten years? You’d have heard from child support by now. Anyway, go to work. I hope you’re keeping the rest of your clients away from Roger.’
* * *
Roger, Matt’s business partner – former business partner – had started a rival firm, poaching half the clients. Now he was disputing the intellectual property rights to the software. Even though they’d worked on it together. It was the first time Matt had been seriously mistreated.
He drove to his office in Watford. The traffic was bad and it seemed a long way. It was Roger who had insisted on Watford, and now Matt was stuck with the lease. He stood at the window staring down at the street. He knew he should be phoning clients to keep them sweet. Warning his staff to help find new business because their jobs were at risk. Their jobs? Never mind their jobs – his own house was at risk, and Lynette didn’t realize. But he had no energy. He studied the sleeping bag of a homeless man in the doorway of an empty warehouse. Another of life’s losers?
It was easy to find Ann online. She still had the unusual surname from her Slovak grandfather, so evidently was still single. There was no photo, just one of those abstract head outlines. Matt imagined piercing eyes, and faded hair pulled back severely. He phoned. A woman answered.
He gave his name. ‘A friend from way back.’
‘Ann has moved.’
‘Have you got her new number?’
‘Give me yours. Then it’s up to her.’
Matt passed the time with programming. The morning ended. Nothing. Why was her friend so cagey? Ann must have left unpaid debts, or an abusive partner. A mental picture of her merged with the lines of code on his screen. A slim small-breasted figure sitting up in bed watching him wide-eyed. That posture must have been common during their brief affair.
The meaning of that look, dark brown eyes like bullet points, was still unclear to him. Was it wonder? That a pale waif from a council flat in Stepney could land a computer whiz kid from a (lesser-known, admittedly) public school? Was it desire tinged with embarrassment, willing him back to bed but wanting him to make the move? Or fear, that her lover might be a mirage? Something about the memory made a knot in his stomach. Annoying.
He was eating a chicken Caesar salad sandwich when she phoned.
He swallowed hard, then coughed on the crumbs. ‘Ann. Sorry.’
‘You wanted me to phone. Are you all right?’
‘I’m fine. Just wondered how you are.’ She didn’t answer. ‘And where you live these days.’ Still nothing. ‘Are you . . .?’
An odd little laugh. ‘I’m in Brighton.’
He thought quickly. He had clients in Worthing. It would be easy to visit without telling Lynette, who might misunderstand. Also, the clients might appreciate some stroking, to keep them away from Roger.
‘I have to be in Brighton on business. I wondered if I might . . . you know . . .’
‘Drop in? Of course.’
They arranged a time and rang off. Matt found it oddly disturbing that it was so straightforward. No breathless surprise on her part. No recriminations – but she might be rehearsing those.
* * *
On the M25, in crawling traffic, he too had time to rehearse. He would spare her the details of his success. He had studied her address online. A cramped terrace house in a Brighton back street. She might not want to hear about his detached house in the Avenues in Harpenden, with pine needles on the pavement instead of chip wrappers. If he mentioned his well-run business, his happy marriage, his children, he’d do it in an offhand way to save her from feeling bitter.
Bitter – and why not? His last date with Ann was at a fondue party with friends. Ten around the table. The polished walnut surface reflected the light of twenty candles in silver holders, and the flames under the fondue. Matt was opposite Ann, with Gina, a young GP, as his neighbour. The wine, the low lighting, the naked flames made him daring. His hand strayed to Gina’s sheer thighs, then, encouraged by her own hot hand, inside her tights. She leaned and whispered that he was her gynaecologist, and he doubled up with laughter.
The shenanigans were obvious to Ann. A quick-tempered girl might have upset the fondue feigning clumsiness, and sent hot oil into their laps. A streetwise girl might have remarked in exaggerated Cockney, ‘Well I ‘ope ‘e washed ‘is ‘ands, dear.’ But quiet gentle Ann was no Eliza Doolittle. She sat frozen, her meat burning on its skewer till someone rescued it.
Her only protest, when Matt and Gina were rolling among the coats on their hosts’ bed, was to open the bedroom door and stand framed by the landing light.
That was all. He raised himself on one elbow.
‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’
Ann stood silent.
‘Oh, do disappear, dear,’ said Gina. ‘Call a cab if the party doesn’t appeal.’
* * *
Matt never reported this to Lynette. He simply said he told Ann, sadly, that they had no future. After the party he only saw Ann twice. Once was in London. After visiting Companies House, he emerged onto Victoria Street and there she was, looking in an art gallery window. He walked past quickly, trying not to look. But he couldn’t miss the shock on her reflected face when she saw his own reflection. She didn’t turn. He hurried on in silence.
Arriving in Brighton, Matt found Ann’s street was in the Lanes, surprisingly sunny. Treeless, yes, but the tiny front gardens were crowded with buddleias and hydrangeas. The houses had cheerful touches – brass knockers, number tiles, terracotta wall vases planted with lavender. He thought the rent must be high. Maybe she’d moved in an attempt to find work, and this was short-term to give her a respectable address.
The house had a sky-blue door, glazed with stripes of frosting. He rang the bell and watched for Ann’s figure to fill the frame, remembering the last time he saw her through glass. His and Lynette’s engagement party at a country house outside St Albans. Ann’s face a death-mask pressed to a patio door. A waiter invited her in but she shook her head fiercely, shedding rainwater like a dog. She must have walked miles from the station.
When the sky-blue door opened, he realised he’d forgotten how tall Ann was. Perhaps when he knew her before she walked with a stoop. And – my God, he thought for a moment, I did get her pregnant. Because when he went to hug her a large bump made the gesture awkward.
He laughed. ‘I wondered what would be the first thing you’d say.’
She smiled. ‘Really?’
‘Yes. The same as the last.’
‘I don’t remember. Come in.’
The little house was cheerful, with lively framed prints on the walls. From the front room he could see through to the back. Beyond the kitchen was a sunlit yard, with pelargoniums on shelves on walls of white-painted brick.
But I couldn’t live like this, he told himself as Ann made coffee. Too little space. So, it’s as I feared. She hasn’t done well for herself. Won’t afford the rent for long, even if she gets a job. In some sense she was still a victim. He wondered whether to offer her money.
When she leaned to put down his coffee, he noticed a sizable cleavage. The smallness of her breasts had been one of his disappointments. No doubt pregnancy made the difference. He wondered who the father was. No sign of a male presence. Perhaps in desperation she’d brought some stranger back from the pub.
‘So, Matt, how’s it going? Are you still with Lynette?’
He wondered whether she meant it. He could have forgiven a trace of sarcasm. Her voice was surprisingly neutral, her East End origin less obvious. He wondered whether she was suppressing emotion at seeing him ten years on.
‘And how’s it going with you, Ann?’ He paused, choosing his words to avoid distressing her. ‘Are you with anyone?’
‘Does that surprise you?’
‘Of course not,’ he said quickly.
She laughed and ruffled her hair. It was fluffy, surprisingly blonde. Dyed, no doubt. They drank their coffee and studied one another in silence. He’d forgotten how dark her eyes were. And penetrating. Maybe they were right in the Middle Ages when they thought eyes send out beams.
‘Tell me about your work,’ she said.
The safe world of technicalities was a relief. He didn’t mention Roger. But after five minutes the conversation felt one-sided, and he paused.
‘And you, Ann?’
She sat for a moment covering her mouth with her hand. It was a trait he remembered, usually when she was struggling with some feeling. He felt bad that he might have made her envy his success.
‘When you were talking just now,’ she said, ‘I started thinking about jobs I’ve done.’
‘I wasn’t trying to show off.’
‘Of course, you weren’t. No, I was remembering when I worked in a garden centre. Watering, labelling, potting on, that sort of thing.’
Matt thought, Oh dear, a menial job.
‘I enjoyed it. All very matey and good fun. They must have thought I was a good worker, because they offered me a better job. In the sales office. More money. And you know what? I turned it down. I said I was happy outside, not stuck in front of a screen.’
He shifted in his seat, suddenly irritated.
Ann laughed. ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.’
‘Is there any more coffee?’
Of course, he repeated to himself, of course. Too compliant, no will of her own. A geisha. Back then she had more or less invited him to treat her badly. While he waited for the coffee, he studied the houses opposite. Nicely proportioned he had to admit, but why were the chimneys and parapets lined with spikes? Not very elegant.
When she brought the coffee (not bending this time, which disappointed him) he raised the question.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘It’s the seagulls. They’re a pest.’
‘Can’t you put out grain mixed with contraceptive pills?’ he suggested, then was annoyed to find himself blushing.
Ann smiled. ‘No, Matt, they’re protected.’
Silence fell. She seemed unfazed by it.
‘Tell me about the person you’re with,’ he said at last.
She moved to the fireplace, and once again he was struck by how tall she was, stately almost, despite her less-than-memorable profile. She picked up a photo frame and brought it to him. He saw a couple squinting into strong sunlight, their features bland masks devoid of shadows.
He almost laughed aloud. Weird name for probably a weird guy. Although his appearance – plain white T-shirt, black cargo pants – could only be described as average. He studied the photograph politely before returning it.
‘He looks okay.’ It wasn’t quite what he meant. He immediately wished he hadn’t said it. ‘Very much okay.’
He felt he ought to ask her about Helton – age, social background, job etcetera – but somehow couldn’t bring himself to start. If her partner was less than perfect, she might be forced unfairly onto the defensive.
‘So, will I get to meet him?’
‘Hope so. He should be back soon.’
He hoped that was subtle enough. Ann studied him. She seemed – how to describe it? – concerned in some way. But calm. She smoothed the knees of her dress and fiddled with the gold chain at her neck, like someone waiting for a journey or film to start. Then shook her head.
‘He’s not at work today. Which might be a good thing. If he had been, he’d be very messy.’
Matt imagined Helton digging ditches, taking off mud-caked boots by the front door and calling Ann in a rough voice for a brew.
‘He’s been to see the accountant,’ she said.
But even labourers had accountants these days if self-employed, trying to pay less tax.
‘Yes, it was much simpler when we had no money.’
Matt suddenly felt restless. He stood up and peered out at the street. Two schoolgirls passed, neat in white uniform blouses, laughing at a text message. A young red-haired man, energetic, pushed a baby in a buggy in the other direction. Matt thought of his children. When they were teenagers would they still treat him with respect? When they had children of their own, would he be a wise granddad or a back number?
So, Ann and Helton had money. If he’d wanted to play the benefactor, he should have thought of it earlier, preferably before Roger absconded.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked.
She had often asked that question during their affair, on edge, desperate to gauge his mood. But now the tone was different. Solicitous was the word. Playing the modest little woman, giving him a false impression of her situation.
‘Why shouldn’t I be?’
She blushed. ‘Oh dear, I should have offered you some cake.’
She hurried to the kitchen.
‘Don’t bother,’ he called. ‘I’m not hungry.’
She stood quite still in the archway to the kitchen. Her composure disturbed him. Then the sound of a key in the front door. It opened. The mat well sounded hollow under heavy steps.
‘When you shake hands,’ Ann said in an undertone, ‘do it left-handed.’
‘Why, is he a Mason?’
She didn’t respond, and he immediately saw why. Helton had only one arm. A guilty relief arose in him. So, Ann had had to accept second best. In the great Grand Prix of happiness, she was a lap behind. He’d been right to come and see her to offer consolation.
Helton was brown-skinned, lightly built but muscular. He studied Matt with friendly interest. The stump of his right arm twitched oddly as he shook hands firmly with his left.
‘Helton, this is Matt,’ Ann said. ‘A friend from where I used to live.’
‘Matt, this is Helton, soon to be Daddy.’
Matt said, ‘Ann will have mentioned me.’
Helton looked concerned and puzzled. ‘No, I don’t think so.’
But of course, Matt thought, she’d avoid any mention in case she made him jealous. In case Helton felt his partner was some guy’s reject. Because of course there was a hierarchy with couples, well-made paired with well-made, second-rate with second-rate.
He listened politely but without interest as Ann and Helton talked about mundane matters. There was talk of ‘curating’, which Matt associated with dusty museum cases and the smell of institutional floor polish. Ann turned to him.
‘Helton’s a bit on edge about his show.’
‘It opens next month at the Serpentine.’
‘The gallery in Hyde Park?’
Helton pulled a face and spread his left hand in a dismissive gesture, as if the whole affair was a farce.
‘Yeah, that place.’
‘Don’t be like that, love.’ To Matt she said, ‘I keep telling him it’s going to be a wow. There’s a lot of interest in his latest work.’ She nudged Helton, with a charming smile. ‘I should know, being your agent.’
‘His agent?’ Matt found himself suddenly hoarse. ‘I thought you worked in a garden centre?’
‘Oh, years ago.’
Helton grinned. ‘Now it’s me she’s potting on.’
After tea and cake, and polite questions from Helton about his software business, which he evaded, Matt left. The M23 was crowded and the day was hot. He realized he forgot to go to Worthing. His right leg ached. Of course – he hadn’t adjusted the seat after Lynette used the car.
When he got home, he could unburden himself to her. ‘Why did I bother?’ and so on. But then he remembered he hadn’t told her where he was going.
Alex Barr’s short fiction has appeared in leading literary magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland, and Canada and has been read on Radio 4. His awards include first prize in the Doolin Writers short story competition 2016 and third prize in the National Poetry Competition 2000. His recent fiction can be read online at mironline.org/what would your mother say, mironline.org/what took you so long, and Litro story Sunday/greeks. He has run creative writing workshops and theatre projects in and around Fishguard where he now lives. Before moving to Wales he taught architectural design at Manchester Metropolitan University.