Short Fiction ~ Michelle Christophorou
Rebecca watches her husband from across the room. He swirls and rattles the ice cubes in his Baccarat tumbler, in that way that makes him look sophisticated but — for those who know him better — suggests he is annoyed or, worse, bored. For junior associate Andrew, Rebecca surmises, it is yet another demonstration of John’s standing, that rare mix of attainment and cool. A kind of Mad Men’s Don Draper in the world of corporate law. Though, she hopes, minus the addictions and adultery.
They’ve entertained them all in her oak-panelled drawing room. Senior associates lusting for kudos, straining for the privilege and the cash. Intoxicated by the long-lawned detached in Ealing, the buttoned-velvet sofas, the walls adorned — not with family portraits — but with a smattering of Bacon and Freud, and the occasional up-and-coming discovered by their dealer, now just making their names. John even invites the occasional trainee, mainly Eton boys in Savile Row suits, but once a female, glowing skin and bronze, ringleted hair. Rebecca had narrowed her eyes at that one.
After their guests leave, John will sit back on one of those five-digit sofas, relax his spine and, by a half-notch, his accent. Rebecca will open the French windows, let in the late-August air, still heavy with honeysuckle, fire up the sound system. Buena Vista Social Club, Herbie Hancock, or something that will surprise him. Perhaps that new one with the rave reviews? But there are rituals to get through first.
The junior partner at Rebecca’s elbow turns to her.
“How long have you lived here?”
Polite conversation? Genuine curiosity? Sizing up his prospects, the years it would take him to buy somewhere like this? Rebecca gives him — Jatinder? — the benefit of her doubt.
“All my life. It belonged to my parents.” She doesn’t add that John moved in when he was eighteen. That they sent him to study Law to support the foetus in her adolescent womb. Alexander would have been about Jatinder’s age now.
“Nice. I grew up in a two-bed terrace.”
“And I’d guessed you were an Eton boy.”
“Winchester scholar, actually. Sikh, working-class, with a Brummie accent. Made to feel very welcome.”
“Well it certainly agreed with you. John tells me you were made up this year.”
Jatinder laughs and turns out his palms in a semi-shrug.
“What did your parents do?” he says.
“Ask Philip Larkin.”
He regards her with a wry smile. Says nothing.
“Father was a surgeon. Mother lunched. Among other things.” Thirteen-years old, home from school early, muffled voices, the bedroom door slammed in her face.
“Didn’t fancy medicine yourself?” Jatinder swipes two champagne glasses as the hired waitress hovers. Passes one to Rebecca. She downs the half-inch left in the glass she was holding, hands him the empty.
“Do you always ask so many questions?”
“How do you think I was made up?”
Rebecca looks over at her husband. John is now standing, legs planted wide apart. His right elbow juts out as he addresses the small circle around him, drawing laughs of exactly the right timbre. Andrew looks up and catches her eye, glances right to note Jatinder, standing comfortably beside her. The calculation is apparent in his face. Must one court favour with the wife to be made partner by one’s early thirties?
She turns back to Jatinder. “And is this what you always wanted?”
“I’m not sure—"
“The law? Partnership?”
“What might you have done instead? If money were no object.” She looks up. Andrew is halfway across the room.
“Let me see. Opera singer? Circus master? Pole dancer?”
I like him, thinks Rebecca, just as Andrew arrives.
“Rebecca,” he says, with an almost imperceptible bow. “The house is looking marvellous. I love the painting of the lilies.”
“Jatinder here was telling me what he might have been if he were not a lawyer.” Rebecca fingers the petals of a rose in the vase beside her.
“Can’t say I ever considered anything else.”
She wonders what John sees in this one. “But if you had to?”
“I honestly don’t know. A pilot?”
“Glorified bus driver,” says Rebecca.
“Speaking of flying, Andrew is helping me with that German airline deal,” says Jatinder. “He’s a quick learner.”
Kind too, thinks Rebecca. Like John. Kinder than me. And maybe this Andrew is simply very good at his job. Perhaps that is what John sees in him? She knows that, in some way or other, these young men he brings home are all his sons.
John is heading towards the door.
“Excuse me,” says Rebecca, and hands Andrew her glass. She intercepts John, feels the warmth of his hand on the small of her back. Half support, half caress.
“Time?” he says.
Ten minutes later, John has sent the waitress home, and negotiated his guests into the hallway. Jatinder is at the bottom of the stairs.
“Come to lunch Sunday,” she hears herself say, “if you’re not too busy.”
“I’d like that,” Jatinder replies.
“One o’clock.” And, at that moment, he is her son, too.
When Rebecca returns to the drawing room, John is on the sofa. She opens the French windows, selects Van Morrison. No, she changes her mind. Cigarettes After Sex: mood sublime, lyrics questionable.
She sits on the arm of the sofa. John closes his eyes for a moment. Opens them again, looks at her, exhales imaginary smoke.
“Tabs After Shags.” She grins.
“Never mind.” She takes his hand, the rough squared shape of it familiar as her own, leads him to the terrace. They begin to dance.
John leans into her. He smells of sandalwood, moonlight, dawn breaking after a restless night.
Michelle Christophorou won the Retreat West Fire-themed flash fiction competition in 2019, for which she received a 'Best of the Net' nomination. She has also won and come second in, respectively, Ad Hoc Fiction and Retreat West micro competitions, and was a runner up in Funny Pearls' short story competition. Her fiction has appeared in print and online, most recently in Splonk, Virtual Zine, Lunate and 100 Words of Solitude. In an earlier life, Michelle practised law in the City of London. Tweets @MAChristophorou