By Arron Thomas
Chris sat feeling his bald head. He ran his hand across the naked scalp, as he remembered better days.
He stared blankly into the mirror. Lost in his own gaze. A loud call from downstairs was not enough to break his deep concentration. His wife, Sharon, stumbled into the bedroom, and slammed the door open as she came.
‘Chris, don’t sit there looking so glum. You could try helping me with the food. Freddy will be here soon.’
A sigh left Chris’s pale lips. ‘Is that today?’ he said with no enthusiasm.
Sharon put her hand on her waist and replied, ‘You know it is. I’ve been reminding you all week. Well, you’re unlikely to help, but try wearing something presentable, at least.’
‘Sure,’ he said as Sharon turned her back on him and walked back downstairs.
He got up and went to a drawer in the corner of the room, where a pair of old weights that were collecting dust lied inside. He pulled his sleeves back, picked them up, and struggled to lift them. He managed to bring them up to his chest eight times, before his muscles had enough. He laughed slightly to himself and put them back in their place.
He slapped a suit jacket onto the old shirt he had on, changed his jeans, and then deemed himself presentable when looking in the mirror. Putting his hand to his mouth, he breathed into the palm and sniffed it. Grimacing at the smell, he decided it best to brush his teeth.
‘What’s for dinner then, love?’ he asked as he entered the kitchen, trying to keep them on good terms while the evening lasted.
‘We’re having a roast,’ she said, as she poured herself a tea, not bothering to turn around.
‘Ah, good. Christmas has come early,’ he said, laughing to himself as he left the room.
Settling on the sofa, he put the television on. An advert for shaving was playing. It featured a topless man with sharp facial features slowly dragging a razor across his face, removing the white cream that covered his jaws. After eliminating the last bit of cream, he felt his smooth cheeks as a woman entered and kissed him.
Chris tutted and rolled his eyes. He changed the channel, and left it on a quiz show. The overzealous voice of the presenter rang out as he asked various questions to a serious sounding old man.
Chris settled back on the sofa, resting his neck as he looked up at the ceiling. He blocked the sound of the people speaking and the hum of the television out. Closing his eyes, he recalled a time in his early twenties when he had slept with an extremely attractive woman. He remembered the warmth, her touch, and the immense pleasure she gave him.
A smile almost came across his dry lips before he bitterly dragged himself back to reality.
The doorbell echoed loudly throughout the house. Chris pulled himself up off the sofa and then made his way to the front door. Through the blurred window, he could see a figure shuffling. He straightened out his shirt a bit with his hands and opened the door.
His son stood there smiling with a young woman.
‘Dad, meet Charlotte. Charlotte, dad.’
Charlotte stretched out her hand, which Chris took and began to shake.
‘It’s very nice to meet you,’ she said, enthusiastically. ‘Freddy has told me so much.’
‘Oh, all good I hope,’ he said, letting out a short laugh. ‘Please come in.’
They both thanked him and entered. Sharon came too and greeted them before rushing back into the kitchen where a strong smell was growing.
‘Please, take a seat,’ Chris said, pointing to the sofa.
Charlotte and Freddy both sat down, while Chris relegated himself to a single chair next to the sofa.
‘So, son, how’s that job going? Bank manager, my god. I tell you, I couldn’t handle that.’
Freddy laughed. ‘Oh it’s really not so bad. A bit time consuming perhaps, but not too strenuous. And, of course, the pay is fantastic, so I can’t complain.’
Sharon came in with some glasses of water. She placed them on the table that stood in front of the sofa. ‘Dinner will be ready soon,’ she said, before rushing out again.
‘Smells delicious,’ Freddy said.
‘And Charlotte, you really have to tell me about yourself,’ Chris said, as he picked up a glass of water before settling back down on his chair.
Charlotte smiled, placing her hand on Freddy’s knee. ‘Well, where can I start? I have a job.’ Her voice was full of pride.
‘Oh, great, what do you do?’
‘I’m an optometrist.’
‘Wow. That’s quite something. What requirements do you need for that?’
Almost blushing, she said, ‘Well, I have a degree in optometry.’
‘Smart and beautiful. Freddy really did well in catching you.’
She laughed, but Freddy shot him an annoyed glance. ‘Could you say it less like Norman Bates please, dad. I didn’t catch her. We met each other. We fell in love. Okay?’ His voice was stern, like a parent telling off a misbehaving child.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it,’ Chris said, limply.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds before Freddy shouted out, ‘No Country for Old Men.’
‘What?’ Chris asked.
‘It was a question on this quiz thing you have on: ‘What Coen-Brothers directed film won best picture?’
‘Oh, I see.’
The silence carried on. Chris looked over occasionally at his son and his girlfriend. How beautiful they both look, he thought. So youthful. Not a wrinkle of stress on their perfect faces. He admired the thick hair that covered Freddy’s head. He felt the nothingness on top of his own and felt embarrassed by comparison.
There was a bit of anger inside him at being told off by his own son. He stared at the telly, thought of the tone in Freddy’s voice, and clenched his fist, digging his nails deep into the palm of his hand.
‘Well, who’s ready for dinner?’ Sharon asked, standing in the doorway.
For the second time that day, she had broken Chris out of his trance.
‘Me. I’m starving.’ Freddy said leaping up from the sofa. He held his hand out to Charlotte to pull her up.
Chris slowly raised himself from his chair and shuffled awkwardly behind them as they walked to the dining room.
In the dining room, Freddy sat at the head of the table, while Chris sat next to Charlotte and was opposite Sharon. They ate away. Charlotte was talking to Sharon as she had kept asking questions about Charlotte’s job and life.
As this conversation went on, Freddy would occasionally cut in to add something, while Chris nibbled away at his meal, saying nothing.
Chris looked up at his wife. He saw in her what he saw in himself: an old, tired, unattractive face, withered by years of hard work and stress. He did not like what he saw, so he turned to his son’s girlfriend. She reminded him of Sharon when she was young, when her face shined bright like a bloomed flower.
He was taken aback by her beauty, and temporarily stopped eating as he stared at her.
‘Something wrong with your meal?’ Sharon asked, noticing his fork with turkey on it hanging in his hand.
‘Oh, no. It’s great. Thank you.’
He carried on eating, turning away his glance from Charlotte and flashing a smile at his unhappy looking wife.
‘Dad, how’s work treating you?’ asked Freddy from the end of the table.
‘Oh, you know, fifty five years old and still doing the same rubbish I started doing almost thirty years ago. Nothing’s changed, and nothing ever will, I suppose.’ He stared gloomily down at his meal as he spoke.
‘You’ve got to be up for a promotion soon, haven’t you?’ Freddy said with a quiet laugh.
‘Very amusing, yes. I only started working there in the first place to support you and your mother.’
‘Well, you chose to have me. Not my fault if you weren’t financially ready.’ A sour tone was creeping into Freddy’s voice.
No one said anything. The silence hung heavy.
Freddy spoke again, ‘Besides, no one’s keeping you there now.’
Chris felt his fist clenching again before Sharon intervened.
‘All right, all right. This isn’t the bloody cold war. It’s supposed to be a family dinner. So, you two get along, please. Besides, we have a guest.’
‘She’s a bit more than a guest, mother.’
Sharon tutted. ‘You know I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘It’s fine, really,’ said the uncomfortable but friendly voice of Charlotte. ‘Freddy, tell them the story about that dog we saw on the way here.’ Charlotte had tried lightening the mood, but Freddy was not having any of it.
‘No. Best not. Father doesn’t like dogs. Do you, dad?’
Chris did not bother to respond, but his face spoke for him; it was a bright pale red. He felt a rage boiling up inside of him, ready to explode at any moment. The thoughts of what Freddy had said to him spun crazily around his mind. Who does he think he is? He thought. Coming into my house, and talking to me that way. After I raised him. After I spent years doing nothing but stressing and aging trying to bring him up right.
‘I’ve got cake!’ Sharon called out, yelling it excitedly as if it was the most important news in the world. This non-sequitur caught Chris by surprise. The confusion of it made him lose focus of his anger, for the time being.
‘I’d love some!’ Charlotte said. ‘To tell you the truth, I’ve been dying for something sweet all day. It was such a long drive here. I can’t tell you how hungry I am.’ She placed her hand on her belly and rubbed it in a circular motion.
‘I’m sure you’ll love it. I bought it from a local shop. They do the most fantastic cakes you could imagine, really,’ Sharon said. Her voice had perked up considerably.
Sharon got up from her chair and wandered to the fridge, where she pulled out a large, iced cake. She placed it on the table, got a knife out of the drawer, and began to slice pieces for everyone.
‘That’s enough for me, thanks,’ Chris said as Sharon cut his share.
‘I’ll have a bigger piece please, mum.’
Chris felt challenged by this. He looked over at Freddy who smirked back at him. It was an enigmatic expression, and Chris could not tell what was meant by it, except that it seemed threatening.
Chris then turned his gaze to Charlotte, who softly took bites into her slice. Her striking blonde hair flowed down her pale cheeks. The light smile she had as she ate lit up her face, and her hazel eyes seemed to captivate Chris as he looked at them.
He looked over to Freddy who was staring back at him coldly. He leapt forward and kissed Charlotte’s pale cheek.
‘What the hell are you doing!?’ Freddy shouted, standing up, pushing his chair back as he did it.
‘Chris! Stop!’ Sharon screamed.
Charlotte nervously backed away from him.
Freddy walked over to Chris and punched him in the face, leaving a large cut on his upper lip. Chris fell to the floor, where he looked up at Freddy towering over him.
‘You’re a scumbag. You’re sick.’ He grabbed Charlotte by the arm. ‘Come on, we’re leaving.’
‘I’m sorry, Freddy,’ Sharon said, ignoring Chris.
On the floor, Chris turned his head while feeling his bleeding lip with his hand. He saw Freddy vanish out the front door, slamming it hard behind him.
Stretched out on the sofa, Chris once again gazed at the ceiling. The light from the television flashed onto him.
Sharon entered with a bag of frozen peas and some tissues.
‘Wipe the blood off and then put this on your face. You’re going to have a nasty bruise there, I can tell you.’
Chris said nothing. The thoughts of the kiss he had landed on Charlotte’s beautiful cheek lingered on his mind, and he thought of how he had not felt skin that soft in so many years, and how he was never going to again.
‘You’re really disturbed, Chris. All these years I’ve been by your side, and I let you do so much. Elaine, all those years back. All you did with her, and yet I stayed. But you just can’t be controlled, can you? Something about you men, you feel threatened by your own children.’ Her voice was indifferent.
‘He hit me.’
‘I’d call it justice, but he’d have to do it many more times for it to be called that.’ She stopped and looked at him with his blank stare. ‘You would have hit back if you could have, wouldn’t you?’
‘But look at you now. You’re an old man. A weak man. In your youth you would have killed someone who did that to you. Now you’re too afraid to even hit back. Life has caught up with you, hasn’t it?’
‘All right, you’ve had your fun. No need to twist the knife anymore.’
Sharon burst out laughing. ‘Oh, I’m just enjoying this moment while it lasts. You don’t get so many joys as you become older, so at least let me get my kicks out of this one.’
She laughed some more as he continued to lie there staring.
Turning to the television, where an attractive young presenter with bright white teeth smiled at the camera, she said, ‘Say, that woman, do you find her attractive too? Want to make out with her? Or do you only go for your offspring’s partners now?’
He turned to face the television.
‘It would be an improvement over you, at least,’ he said without expression.
Sharon smirked. ‘You really are a scumbag, aren’t you? Oh well, it’s my fate and yours to be stuck together in perfect misery. Want some more cake?’
‘I’d love some. Bring the whole plate.’
‘Not very healthy.’
‘At this point, I really couldn’t care less.’
She wandered into the dining room. The sound of chairs being pushed under the table emerged from there. She came in with the cake on the plate, and the knife next to it. She settled it down in front of him.
‘Since you’re old enough to start kissing girls, I think you should be able to cut your own cake too,’ Sharon said, as she sat on the sofa next to him. ‘And move your feet, please.’
He sat up on the sofa and looked down at the plate and the knife, which was illuminated by the glow of the television. He picked up the knife and began to dig it into the cake. He watched as it slowly sliced it in two. He turned to his wife, and stared at her face. That face which was once so beautiful. For a moment, he saw the beauty, but then the sad truth of old age remerged. In her eyes, lit by the television, he could see his reflection.
He gripped the knife tight in his fist, lifted it from the cake and dug it deep into his wife’s neck. The blood splattered onto various objects around the living room.
A lone drop of blood dripped gently down the family portrait where Chris, Sharon, and Freddy smiled happily at the camera.