Richard and Sue have a friend called Roger. He was originally her friend from university and was best man at their wedding.
Twenty years later Roger has got himself in an undisclosed sticky situation and has asked to come and stay in their one bed flat in Tufnell Green. Three consecutive Tuesday nights are all he ‘needs’. Tonight is the first.
‘Put your bags out of the way in our room, Roger,’ says Richard. ‘And I’ll fix you a long one, you look like you need it.’
‘Not too weak,’ shouts Roger from the bedroom.
Richard is waiting with a glass when Roger returns to the lounge.
‘Thanks, Richard, that looks nice and strong to me!’
They clink glasses.
‘Still the same lumpy bed sofa, I’m afraid,’ says Richard.
Roger laughs. ‘So, where’s m’lady?’
‘Getting us a takeaway.’
And they clink their glasses again.
Sue arrives looking windswept around the front door with two brown paper takeaway bags.
‘Here she is, here she is,’ says Roger bounding towards her to give her a hug. As he holds her, Richard rescues the bags.
‘I’ll sort these.’
He glances back at them as he pops into the kitchen and Roger is still holding on.
‘You’ll have to let go of my wife, Roger, or she’ll stab you!’
‘What are you talking about, Richard?’ she says.
‘Food, my wife needs her food and nothing should get in her way!’
‘Oh, Sue, you’re not pregnant, are you?’ asks Roger, letting her go.
‘Huh? Oh God, no,’ she says, laughing.
‘Wine or beer?’ asks Richard.
‘Wine!’ they shout together.
‘Wine, it is,’ he says.
Various whiskies and two bottles of wine later, and they sit at the table in the lounge amongst the debris of empty takeaway cartons and dirty plates.
‘Shall I?’ asks Richard holding up a third bottle.
‘No, I’ve had enough. We’ve had enough,’ says Sue.
‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd!’ says Roger, laughing.
‘I’ll open it then,’ says Richard, laughing too.
‘No, don’t!’ says Sue firmly.
But he does open it. She puts her hand over her glass when he comes to pour, and he carries on pouring over her hand.
‘For fuck’s sake! Why did you do that?’
‘I thought you were being a prude.’
‘A prude? No, I’ve got work tomorrow and I don’t want to go in with a hangover.’
Roger returns with a kitchen roll from the kitchen. He tears off a sheet for Sue and uses a few other sheets to clean the table. ‘Why don’t you two lovebirds go to bed and make up? I’ll sort out the mess. And, anyway, Bertha is waiting for me,’ he says with a wink, indicating the sofa bed in the corner of the room.
‘Bertha? I’ve never heard it called that before,’ says Richard.
‘We called her Bertha when we bought her for our last student house, didn’t we, Sue?’
‘We did. A berth in a storm,’ she says.
‘Not a big girl with big cushions?’ asks Richard.
‘Get to bed, Benny Hill,’ says Roger.
Richard drains his full glass and walks off, waving back over his shoulder.
‘There is a quilt and some bedding in the bag,’ says Sue.’ ‘Do you need a hand putting Bertha down?’
‘No, no, ooh what a carry on.’
‘Is everything okay, Roger?’
‘God, yes. I could ask you the same.’
‘Watch the knife!’ shouts Richard from the bedroom.
The light is on as Richard watches Sue get into bed.
‘Our friend, why’s he here?’
She doesn’t reply.
‘And what is this mysterious ‘sticky situation’?’
‘He said ‘tricky’, not ‘sticky’.’
‘Yes, whatever. Now, can we turn the light off?’
‘What’s the magic word?’
‘Okay, I’ll do it!’ she says, getting out of bed.
He rushes and beats her to it.
Standing together in darkness by the switch he tries to kiss her but she ducks and climbs back into bed.
As Sue sleeps, Richard lies awake and remembers meeting Roger the first time. Sue was an intern and he’d just asked her out.
‘Do you mind if I bring a friend?’ she said. ‘He’s very nice. But you’ve got nothing to worry about.’
‘I’m not worr−’ but before he could finish, she pulled his head towards her and kissed him.
Everything neatly tied up there and then: her attraction for him and her lack of attraction for her friend. There was something lacking though. He remembers his handshake when they first met: soft and wet like lettuce.
It’s morning and Roger and Sue have already left. Last night’s mess is cleared. The breakfast plates and mugs are in the dishwasher and Roger has put the bedding back in the bags and turned the sofa bed back into a sofa. ‘Good man,’ thinks Richard.
In the middle of the sofa seat is a large damp spot. Richard bends down to have a closer look and puts his finger tentatively on the spot. It’s cold and sticky. He recoils, his brain notching up a gear: ‘it couldn’t be? And, anyway, if it was he’d surely try and hide it, and I’m not checking, sniffing’. But he does sniff and closes his eyes when he does, he’s not sure why. ‘Fuck!’ Fucking hell!’ He thinks about checking the bedding in the bag. It feels too much, sordid, but also straightforwardly forensic, a conclusive step down the line to confirming something he’s not sure he wants to confirm right now. But against this instinct, a stronger impulse makes him pull the sheet from the bag. The same spot is on the sheet and when he places the sheet on the sofa the spots merge in a perfect match.
The sheet, the quilt cover, the pillowcase are thrown into the washing machine. He thinks about how to clean the sofa seat and instead flips it over to reveal its dry side, and goes to have a shower.
‘Hello, anyone there?’ Roger shouts through the letterbox.
‘Just wait a minute!’
‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff.’
Richard opens the door in a dressing gown.
‘Gosh, you’ve gone all Gloria Swanson on me.’
‘The silk dressing gown, the darkened room, the curtains shutting out the day. You must tell me where you got it.’
‘Sue bought it for me.’
‘Your wonderful wife has such good taste.’
‘Make yourself at home, I’m going to get changed.’
‘Where is Sue anyway? Getting us another takeaway?’
‘Ask her yourself when she gets in.’
Richard closes the bedroom door. Roger flicks through the cd’s in the lounge and puts on David Sylvian’s ‘Brilliant Trees’. He takes a bottle of red from his bag and uncorks it. He fills three glasses and takes one of them to sit on Bertha.
Sue arrives: ‘Oh, Roger, I haven’t heard that album for ages. His voice still sounds amazing.’
Roger gets up, hands her a glass and pecks her on the cheek.
‘”Pretty boy handsome” you called him.’
‘No, that was you, Sue.’
‘Roger, it was you!’
Roger puts his arms in the air: ‘Okay, guilty as charged, it was me.’
‘Where‘s Dicky boy?’
‘Being moody and magnificent in the bedroom’
‘You tell me, Sue.’
‘This is lovely wine. Where did you get it?’
‘Changing the subject or really interested in my wine selection?’
‘Never you mind. Now, what has Richard cooked for us?’
‘Nothing I’m afraid,’ Richard says returning from the bedroom. ‘I’ve had a really busy day.’
‘Oh, okay,’ says Sue.
‘Notice the rising inflection, the stealthy lightness, the subtle but steely surprise in Sue’s voice?’
‘Don’t start, Richard’.
‘Sue finds it hard to imagine me being busy all day.’
‘Well, I don’t actually.’
‘Now, now, ladies, we all know there are shopping channels to gaze at on the telly, funny cat pictures and porn sites to surf on the net.’
‘Not my style, Roger, but very funny of you to suggest that’s how I spend my day.’
‘God, is it your time of the month or something?’
‘Yes, shut up, Richard, and have a drink,’ says Sue.
‘Okay,’ and he drains his glass in one.
‘Now that’s what I call wine appreciation,’ says Roger.
‘I’ll go and get us something from Khan’s. Leave you two to wallow in your student music.’
‘Can you make sure they put in the chutneys this time?’
‘Will do, my dearest.’
‘And get some more wine, two at least!’ shouts Roger as Richard closes the front door. ‘Now, where were we?’ he says turning to Sue.
Richard takes his time. He has three pints in Boadicea before going to Khan’s, another in Khan’s whilst he waits, and a Guinness and a chaser in the Boston Arms on the way home.
Grace Jones La Vie En Rose is on very loud in the flat when he gets back.
‘The wanderer returns,’ says Roger, now sporting Richard’s dressing gown.
Richard instinctively thinks of the spot; sheerness of material, closeness, the question of underpants: ‘You’re clothed under there?’
‘Strange question, boxers, vest and more besides.’
‘Oh, Jesus, I’m tired,’ says Richard.
‘That busy day you had,’ says Sue coming in, also in a dressing gown.
‘What’s going on?’
‘You took so long that we had showers, finished the red wine, and even had time for a chat and a bop. Now where’s the curry?’
‘Oh, shit, I left it in the Boston.’
‘I forgot, sorry.’
‘You are kidding, right?’ says Sue. ‘Go back and get them.’
‘Oh, leave him alone, Sue, You’ve got bread and cheese, and I spotted a lovely litre bottle of vodka in the freezer.’
‘You’ve been in our freezer?’ says Richard.
‘Not in it, no. But I had a peep, didn’t realise it was out of bounds,’
‘It isn’t, Roger, just ignore my husband, he’s having some kind of breakdown. Either that or he’s pissed. Which is it, Richard?’
‘A breakdown. I’m off to bed. Behave yourselves, turn out the lights after you, and try not wet the bed, Roger.’
‘What did he say?’
‘It’s Dick’s attempt at humour, Roger.’
‘I’ve left a box of tissues by Bertha or you can grab some toilet roll from the bathroom. You know where it is, out of this door and it’s the door opposite the matrimonial bedroom. Well, the only bedroom. Can’t miss it really, unless you use the other door: for the witch’s broom cupboard.’
‘Fuck off, Richard, you’re being obnoxious,’ says Sue.
‘I am, yes. Sorry. I will fuck off,’ and he slams the door after him.
In bed, Richard can hear the dull indistinct murmur of them talking, Roger’s tenor hum a consistent undertow to Sue’s voice, which becomes shriller the more she drinks. As night wears on, the laughter is more hysterical and frequent, knifing him with each spike, but eventually he falls asleep. When Sue finally climbs into bed she tries to wake him. He pretends to be in an immovable coma as she slurs ‘arsehole’, the sweaty acidic vapour of ethanol from her lips making him wince.
In the morning, Sue is unable to go to work and when Richard gets up, Roger has already gone. A bigger damp spot waits on Bertha’s seat.
‘Fuck!’ screams Richard as soon as he sees it.
Sue stirs and rolls in her bed, her senses moronically mixing in a swell, her brain like quicksand.
‘Our friend has wet the sofa,’ says Richard now standing at the end of Sue’s bed. ‘Again!’
‘I’m not talking about spraying toilet seats. Roger is a sexual incontinent and he doesn’t clear up after himself.’
Sue surfaces: ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Come and look yourself.’
‘No! Tell me what you’re talking about.’
‘Roger has been getting his kicks out on our sofa.’
‘Getting his kicks, probably by imagining you, then spurting all over the place. And not clearing up!’
‘Have you gone mad?’
‘Like a rutting dog pissing all over the place and leaving his mark: Roger has always been territorial around you.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Richard. Have you been at the Fabreze again?’
‘He’s not staying another night. I’m not having a man in our flat beating away like a gibbon over my wife and then not even having the courtesy to clear it up.‘
Sue laughs. ‘Which is worse, the wanking or not clearing up?’
‘Shut up, Sue. It’s not funny.’
Sue puts on her dressing gown. ‘Okay, show me.’
‘It’s not sperm,’ she says, on seeing the spot.
She feels it.
‘It’s sticky and wet, I grant you. But it’s not sperm.’
She smells it.
‘Not pleasant, but not sperm.’
‘Does all sperm smell the same? Taste the same?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Is Roger’s different from mine, for example?’
‘God, you are a complete dick, aren’t you?’
‘You said it.’
‘Roger stained the sofa last week too. I didn’t tell you, I just turned the seat cover over to hide it.’
‘Very gallant of you.’
‘I wasn’t expecting him to do it again.’
‘No, but maybe not very hygienic just covering it up.’
‘I didn’t want to deal with it, clean it.’
‘No? But I bet you thought about it.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean? I didn’t know how exactly to clean it and I didn’t want to either.’
‘Nocturnal emissions, my mother used to call my brother’s nightly performances,’ she says, laughing.
‘I’m glad you think it’s funny.’
‘I don’t, I think you’re funny. Your whole attitude to it is funny: funny peculiar and funny ha ha.’
‘What shall we do?’
‘To clean it? It’s not rocket science. Strip off the cover and put it in the washing machine, I’m going back to bed.’
‘It doesn’t strip off. The cover doesn’t strip off.’
‘Shame. Well, good luck, I’m off to bed anyway.’
‘What shall we do about Roger?’
‘Why should I decide?’
‘Because this is your thing; I’ve told you I don’t think it’s sperm. You’re the one insisting.’
‘What if it is?’
‘Then Roger has been pleasuring himself whilst thinking about someone. And I know that someone isn’t me.’
‘Well, who is it then?’
‘Do I really have to spell it out, Richard?’
‘What? No, don’t be ridiculous.’
‘It’s me being ridiculous now, is it? Think about it for a while. I’m off to bed to kill my hangover and I’d prefer it if you left me alone.’
Sue shuts the door. Richard is left staring at Bertha, his brain beginning to spark, a heat rising from his chest and into his cheeks.
Sue is going to be late. Richard is cooking a meal laden with chilli and basil; Roger doesn’t like chilli or basil.
The doorbell rings.
‘Something smells volcanic,’ says Roger.
‘Hope it’s not too hot for you.’
‘Oh, I’m okay with hot food. Okay with basil too these days I’m glad to say.’ Roger looks round the room. ‘Where’s Bertha?’ he asks.
‘We binned her.’
‘Poor old Bertha, well, she had seen better days.’
‘And lots of action, eh?’
‘Do you mind if I have a shower?’
‘Please yourself,’ and then softly under his breath, ‘You normally do.’
‘What did you say?’
Roger returns after half an hour to find Richard pumping up an airbed.
‘Looks interesting, I didn’t know you were so good at pumping.’
‘Never could have imagined it, eh? And why do you sound like a poor man’s Larry Grayson all of a sudden?’
‘I’ve found my inner −’
‘Ken Dodd, very 70s!’
‘And Larry Grayson isn’t? The new bed: is it rubber? It smells disgusting.’
‘Good for spillages and whatnots.’
‘Whatnots, what a lovely phrase, I haven’t heard it since scout camp.’
‘Camp is the word. Something you’re not telling us, Roger?’
‘Enough Tom and Jerry, let’s cut to the chase, Dick my boy.’
‘I’m pissed off that you’ve been wanking all over our sofa imagining God knows what and then not clearing up after you.’
‘Ah, that! I’m insulted you think I wouldn’t clean ‘that’ up . . . I have a condition, a serious but curable condition. I’ve been going to the Royal Free to see a specialist and to have my post-op dressings and apparatus changed.’
‘Don’t ask. I’ll be okay.’
‘And the mess?’ asks Richard warily.
‘Gel, a silicone wound gel. I should have cleaned it I know but I was afraid to make it worse.’
‘You could have tried or said something, at least.’
‘I’m a lazy coward and I didn’t want to worry you both.’
‘Well, you did make us worry.’
‘And fired your imagination, it seems. Have you shared your masturbatory theories with Sue?’
‘She thought I was being ridiculous.’
‘Good old Sue.’
‘It feels silly now, getting rid of Bertha and everything.’
‘You needed to get rid of her.’
‘A glass of wine?’
‘Do I ever say no?’
‘Okay with your condition?’
‘Positively beneficial to my condition.’
The front door opens.
‘What have you two been getting up to?’ Sue asks.
After dinner, the three friends sit on the remaining sofa facing the slowly collapsing airbed.
‘I can sleep on the floor.’
‘Or share our bed?’ says Sue, giggling.
‘As long as I wear a wetsuit, eh, Richard? Or maybe that would look too much like bondage gear?’
‘Richard likes bondage gear, he made me wear a leather catsuit and cat mask on our honeymoon.’
‘Very feline of you, Richard,’ says Roger.
Richard looks at him as the last of the air escapes from the bed and wonders if he’d been lying about his condition. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Roger is laughing and his features look red and coarse as if his face has been burnt by something. Richard wants to cool the heat by running his fingers down his cheeks but realises his hands are hot too. ‘It must be the chilli’, he thinks, and gets up to open another bottle of wine.
Alan McCormick lives by the sea in Dorset, England. His short stories have won various prizes and his fiction has been widely published in print and online. His story, Go Wild in the Country, was in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015. His short story collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize.
He also writes Scumsters, flash fiction in response to pictures by the artist Jonny Voss, and is currently working on the second draft of Holes, his first book of non-fiction. More about Alan.