© Claire Whatley
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No Time for Losers (revised)
© Claire Whatley
A SHORT STORY
There was a lull in their conversation. Simon leaned towards the wood-burning stove with the poker to fiddle with the logs. The only sounds were the crackle and hiss of metal splitting hot wood and the ticking of the grandmother clock. Annie grabbed her moment.
“I pretended I didn’t know him the other day.”
“What?” Simon stopped stoking and turned to Annie.
“Adam. I pretended I didn’t know him.”
“What d’you mean?”
“He came into the office two days ago. On the scrounge for money as usual. Looking revolting as ever: hair hanging in grease, that disgusting old rock band T-shirt, jeans falling off his backside, and that bloody bolt through his eyebrow. I gave him twenty and made him promise it would include getting a hair-cut. Then, just as he was going, Lucinda came into the office, didn’t she.”
“Yeah, quite. She said, ‘Who the hell was that? Looked like an anorexic Frankenstein’s monster with a soap allergy.’”
Simon lay the poker down in the grate and leaned back in his armchair, “Oh my God! That sums him up a treat.” His attempted laugh strangled itself into a groan. “That woman’s such a bitch.”
“Exactly. So how could I say ‘that’s my son’? How could I? I told her it was some grotty youth looking for work experience and I’d sent him off with a flea in his ear and she said he looked as though he had enough fleas already and we both laughed and it was one of the worst moments of my life.”
Annie’s eyes brimmed. Resisting the tears, she let out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a growl. She watched Simon rubbing his eyes behind his rimless glasses, scanning his mind for le mot juste that might make her feel better. She almost laughed. He was such an incorrigible librarian, all those formulaic words neatly catalogued, ready to be pulled out from the slightly dusty rolling stack of his mind, for just the right occasion.
“Annie, I don’t think you should feel bad about it…”
Annie could feel one of Simon’s lists coming upon him.
“…because a). Adam didn’t hear any of it; b). Lucinda wouldn’t understand our situation in a million years; c). She’s a cow but you do have to work with her; and d). He should never have gone to your office, anyway.”
It was funny how Adam had become known over the years as “their situation”.
In primary school, Adam had been bright, popular, academic and sporty – a good all-rounder. And his creative writing had been outstanding: there’d been talk of putting him on the Gifted and Talented register. Not that anything had ever come of it, though. Their longed-for little girl, Sophie, had arrived when Adam was nine, and he’d been a doting big brother. They’d been a perfect family. Both children had inherited Simon’s thick, dark hair – his own now a wiry grey - and arresting blue eyes. So different from her own classic English field mouse colouring: if she wore beige she ran the severe risk of disappearing. She always thought that sitting around the kitchen table in the mornings, the very archetype of the nuclear family, they resembled the shiny, happy people of a breakfast cereal commercial. Then at some moment in time, now impossible to locate, a metamorphosis had begun to take place in Adam until he grew into the creature Simon and Annie now referred to as the Parasite in the Attic. He scraped a large number of GCSEs and obtained three mediocre A-Levels. He idled away a gap year, working occasionally in dead-end jobs, spent two-thirds of a semester at Uni before deciding it was an irrelevant time-waste and had been lurking in his attic bedroom doing God knows what ever since.
So, the erstwhile perfectly happy parents of perfect children, Annie and Simon now spent most evenings in the sitting room of their tiny cottage, in front of the fire, discussing the situation. Annie allowed herself to take comfort from Simon’s list, but she couldn’t help blurting out her evening mantra, “I just don’t know where we went wrong.”
The exasperation in Simon’s sigh told Annie he hadn’t wanted to hear that. Nevertheless, on cue, he gave his standard reply, “We didn’t go wrong. We just did our best. It’s probably some kind of protracted phase he’s going through – he’s a late developer.”
“Simon, he’s twenty-two.”
Simon opened his mouth but before he could recite another tired phrase, Sophie burst into the room.
“He’s playing that awful music again and I can’t concentrate on my homework!”
At almost thirteen, she still clearly had to fight the impulse to stamp her dainty ballerina foot in frustration, although her Bambi legs, encased in black leggings, looked as though they’d snap under the impact.
“Please tell him to stop it!”
Tears of fury erupted from her eyes and in seconds were dripping from her delicate jaw line. “I hate him! Why isn’t he away at university like a normal brother? Why doesn’t he just go?”
Both Simon and Annie rose from their seats a few millimetres before Simon said, “S’alright, I’ll go.”
As he left the room, he gently pushed Sophie’s hair from her face. She gave her father a brief hug before flouncing into his vacant fireside chair. Annie searched her repertoire of parental wisdom for some words to defuse Sophie’s anger. And yet what she actually said was, “So, how much have you got left to do? Why don’t you bring it down here to finish? I can help you with it.” Her voice emerged a note higher than usual; high enough to expose an edge of pushy-mother panic. She knew as she said it, that her tone of alarm would be instantly detectable on Sophie’s radar. The project had to be handed in by Friday.
Sophie let out a growl of rage, an echo of one of Annie’s own, and said, “Why should I have to move all my stuff? Anyway, I can’t, can I? I’m doing it on the computer. I just want him to…shut…up!” Her fists were clenched and she paused between the words to create an emphasis that made Annie want to laugh out of sheer empathy.
“I know, I know.” Annie paused. “Listen.” The distant bass beat that had only become apparent with the sitting room door open, had now ceased. “Dad’s sorted it out. Look, the time’s getting on. Would you like me to come up with you and help you finish off? I can remember doing the Titanic when I was your age—”
“No, Mum. Basically, I’ve nearly finished and I don’t need help.” She began to twiddle with her hair – a sign that she was calming down. “I just need Adam to stop being such a weirdo and get a life. How d’you think it feels to have a brother like that?”
How d’you think it feels to have a son like that, Annie’s mind retorted as she said, “He’ll be fine, love, he’s just in a phase. Go on, you get on with your Titanic stuff and I’ll bring you up some hot chocolate.”
* * *
Annie finished work at lunchtime two days a week, when the travel agency had its traditionally quiet afternoons. On one such afternoon, as she opened her front door, pondering her lunch choices, an acrid smell of burning wrinkled her nose; a sound of metal scraping metal scratched at her eardrums. She raced to the kitchen.
Adam stood, hunched at the electric range, intent on attacking a small saucepan with a metal spatula. He did not look up as Annie entered.
“Adam – what are you doing? Put that down!”
The saucepan was part of an expensive set, bought a week ago. Simon and Annie had treated themselves after years of tolerating the cheap and cheerful ones whose handles had finally become so cracked and worn as to pose a health hazard. The new pans were of the state-of-the-art, lifetime guarantee, celebrity chef endorsed variety. The instruction leaflet stated categorically: “Do not use metal utensils.”
The scraping continued.
“Adam! Did you hear me? Put that down now!” Annie found herself yelling like some deranged fishwife. When had she become this person?
Adam turned to her, his eyes burning with resentment. He let the spatula, the pan and its contents drop from his hands, sending them crashing to the slate floor. His voice was quiet and slow, “There you are.”
He kicked the pan, and pushed past Annie to leave the room. Annie swung round and grabbed his scrawny arm. “Oh no, you don’t! You can clear up this bloody mess and apologise.” She fought back tears. “Do you know how much those pans cost? It’s nothing to you, is it? Money? You stay here, spongeing off us, not paying a penny towards board and lodging, not even looking for a job, and you can’t even respect the stuff in our home that your father and I work hard to pay for!”
“Mum, it’s a saucepan.” Still the quiet, controlled voice. “I was cleaning it up for you before you got home. If you’d been five minutes later I’d’ve finished, but you don’t…” his voice was no longer quiet, “…need to shout!” He shook his arm free and moved again to leave.
Annie turned to him as he strode slowly down the hall. She made a supreme effort to lower her voice. “Adam, please come back and clean up, now.”
He didn’t stop.
“Look, I’ll deal with the pan, but the least you can do is clean up all this burned baked bean grunge.”
Was he slowing? She built on her conciliatory tone, “Come on, we’ll do it together and I’ll make us lunch.”
He swung round.
“No. Not this time.” He stood squarely, facing Annie. “If you’d just left me alone to do it, it would’ve been fine, but no, you had to go controlling everything just like you always do. It’s all you know, isn’t it? Control. It’s the story of my life. When I wanted to play football, you made me play tennis. When I wanted to learn drums, you made me learn the piano. When I wanted to do art, you made me take the chemistry option. You even tried to tell me who to be friends with. And now you wonder why I don’t know what to do. But I know one thing. I’ll control my…own…life.”
He turned away and opened the front door. There was a moment’s hesitation before he closed it, softly, behind him.
* * *
The presenters of Radio Four held sway in the kitchen as usual in the morning. Simon sat chewing his wholemeal muffin, apparently reading the Guardian, which was propped up against the milk jug, as he listened. Annie munched her no-sugar, no-salt muesli and skimmed milk with the annoyance she always felt over Simon’s pretence at reading as well as listening. Her spoon scraped with noisy determination on her ceramic bowl. Sophie played around with her organic, vegan cereal moistened with a few thimblefuls of soya milk, reading some gloomy work of teenage fiction, wedged against her bowl.
The previous night, Annie and Simon had dissected and analysed every word of her lunchtime contretemps with Adam. There was nothing left to be said. Simon’s concern manifested itself in a general air of depressed languor but she knew he’d forget it as soon as he arrived at work, burying himself in the arcane mysteries of classification and cataloguing.
“He came in at half-past one last night, you know.”
Simon paused to finish reading the sentence he was on and held his finger on the line to mark his place. “Well, he is twenty-two.”
Sophie looked up, waiting for her mother’s response.
“That’s not the point, is it? He has no money and no car. What on earth was he doing until that time?”
“I expect he just went round to Dan’s house.”
“From lunchtime until one-thirty in the morning? What could they have been doing all that time?”
"Don't know. Watch movies? Play music? Drink beer?"
Her daughter's presence made Annie censor her preferred reply of 'Huh, download porn? Take drugs?' to "Whatever it is, it's just not natural to be forever by himself or with Dan."
Sophie looked up with a knowing expression. "D'you think he's gay?"
"No, of course not!" This from Annie and Simon simultaneously.
Sophie clattered her spoon down and tossed her hair away from her face. “Well, he might be. How would you know, anyway? I think you two need to show a united front and give him an ultimatum. Tell him he’s got to re-apply for uni or get a job or he’s out on his ear. I wouldn’t stand for it. He’s just taking advantage of you – you’re too soft.”
Annie stood up, cereal bowl and spoon in hand. “Thank you very much, Sophie. I’ll remind you that we’re too soft next time I ask you to help with the housework, or, heaven forbid, tidy your room. Go up and finish getting ready or we’ll be late for school.”
Simon sighed and moved his finger from the page in a resigned way, then opened out, flicked and folded the paper so that the front page was once more at the front before folding it again and placing it under his arm. The predictability of Simon’s Guardian folding ritual caused irritation to surge through Annie’s skull like an army of ants.
Giving her mother her well-practised pre-teenaged pout, Sophie rose from the table. “I’ve got as much right to have an opinion as anyone. I have to put up with him too, you know.”
She swept from the room.
Annie began to load the breakfast crockery into the dishwasher. When she was convinced that Sophie was out of earshot, she said, “She is right though, isn’t she? We can’t go on like this.”
Simon turned off the radio. “But do you want your son sleeping in a cardboard box in a shop doorway? It’s not as though we need any housekeeping money from him – we’ve paid for the kids this long and we’ll be paying for Sophie for a few years yet, anyway.”
“It’s not the money, Simon. It’s his attitude! I can’t take too many more rows like yesterday – he looked as though he could’ve killed me.”
Simon glanced up at the clock. “Look, I’m going to be late. Don’t worry. We’ll try and talk to him again. He must have some ideas about his future. But no ultimatums, OK? Not yet.” He stepped forward to give Annie a hasty kiss. “Got to go. Have a good day.”
“I'll do my best. And you.”
She mooched about, clearing up the kitchen. The same weary thoughts on the Adam situation looped and buzzed in her mind like a maddened bluebottle hurling itself repeatedly against a window. Which ever way she looked at it, she couldn’t see a way out. The fact was, she truly hated him and she truly loved him. The situation was her fault, of course; it was always the mother’s fault. Yes, she had done her best but it had been all wrong and you only had one shot at bringing up a child. Learning from your mistakes was no help when you had already ruined a life. Adam was right. She’d been a control freak – was still a control freak. How do you change that?
Annie closed up the dishwasher and pressed the start button. She thought of the time when a younger, more companionable version of her son used to help her stack the dishes and chat about his forthcoming day. She was interrupted from her musing by the shuffle of socks on the floor. Adam entered the kitchen.
Not just Adam: Adam with a haircut, Adam in a suit. OK, a T-shirt underneath, but a plain white one with no rock band graffiti on it; OK, still the bolt in the eyebrow but somehow this didn’t look so bad now. How to react to this strange new Adam?
The blank expression on his chalk-pale face spoke of suppressed embarrassment and Annie knew better than to make it worse. He delved into the cereal cupboard and Annie seized the moment that they were not face to face to coerce all her speech organs into a casual tone, “Hi. You look nice today.”
He continued to study cereal boxes. “Oh, yeah, cheers.” He pulled out the only pack of sugar-coated cereal and turned to fetch a bowl, avoiding eye contact.
It had been months since Annie had seen her son in the morning before she launched into the school run and dash to work. The phrase, ‘You’re up early’ was practically scorching a hole in her tongue, but mustering all her diplomacy, she choked the words back and bustled out of the kitchen to chivvy Sophie along and check she had everything in her school bag. She shot him a quick glance as she left the room, muttering, “Well, must get on…have a good day.”
She could have sworn she heard a friendly, "And you, Mum." Or it might have been the rustling of a cereal packet.
Adam’s astonishing transformation so filled Annie’s mind as she drove to school that she repeatedly ignored Sophie as she whinged about the unbearable misery of her forthcoming day, enabling her then to whinge further about being ignored by her own mother. Momentarily giving Sophie some attention, Annie then almost drove straight through a red traffic light, braking so sharply that Sophie’s school bag was flung off the back-seat and onto the floor, spilling most of its contents.
“Mother! Look what you’ve done! My project’s all creased!” From the front passenger seat Sophie contorted her body as awkwardly as possible to retrieve her books: an award-winning performance to show her mother the extreme inconvenience to which she was being subjected.
“Sorry, love, sorry! Squish it between a couple of big books – it’ll soon flatten out.”
Sophie continued to sigh and fuss until they pulled up at school and Annie could at last think her thoughts without interruption, at least until she arrived at work.
What did the new Adam presage? He had looked handsome…sexy, even – in a gawky kind of way. Was there a girl? God, no – young men don’t wear suits to meet girls, not since ‘The Great Gatsby’, anyway. Besides, if there was a girl on the planet who had fancied him on the basis of his usual appearance, there’d be little point in changing it, would there? Surely, it couldn’t be a job interview – he’d surely, for goodness’ sake, have worn a shirt and tie, not a T-shirt, for that, wouldn’t he? And please, God, he’d’ve taken the eyebrow bolt out. It couldn’t be a job. He wasn’t qualified for anything he wanted to do, and felt too superior to apply for the limited range of jobs he was qualified to do.
The febrile pitch of her curiosity was such that Annie had a fairly unproductive, error-filled morning. She had extreme difficulty attending to clients’ requests. She noticed significant glances exchanged between one couple as she kept losing her thread and forgetting place names, trying to sell them the company’s new package tour of India’s Golden Triangle. In between clients, Lucinda’s bitchy, gossipy chat provided a mild distraction, but it was a relief when lunchtime finally arrived and she could wander to the bakery, once more immersed in her own thoughts.
She had phases of bringing to work a healthy salad in a plastic box, but lately at lunchtimes on the days that she worked all day, she’d been heading, heedless of calories, for the bakery. On her return to the office, clutching her bacon and brie baguette in a brown paper bag, she passed the town’s only smart restaurant. She glanced idly through the spotless window. The table settings were spirit-level straight; the large, fine wineglasses gleamed on the thick, linen tablecloths. A single deep orange gazania curved elegantly from each slim, centrally placed vase. The restaurant was not busy. About four tables were occupied. At an intimate corner table sat a gorgeously chic fair-haired woman of about thirty-five, oozing moneyed London sophistication, in an unstructured, pale silk suit. Even in the context of such a smart restaurant, she was attracting admiring glances. And as Annie looked on, this vision of cool elegance was clinking a toast in a glass of red with – Adam.
Annie’s bacon and brie baguette fell to the pavement.
* * *
“Did he see you?”
“No, of course he didn’t see me! You don’t think I was going to hang around to wave and blow kisses, do you? Even in those bloody kitten heels I must’ve done a four-minute-mile back to the office. I could hardly stop shaking. Honestly, Simon, she must’ve been at least forty.”
“Mmm, so you said. But we mustn’t jump to conclusions. There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation.”
Simon and Annie fell quiet as they considered reasonable explanations. The fire crackled and spat.
Simon drew an in-breath.
“Yes?” said Annie with an eager question mark.
“I really think we need to speak to him.”
“No! He’ll think I’ve been spying on him!”
“But if we don’t find out by speaking to him the only other way would be to spy on him. And I hardly think raiding his room, rifling through his papers or bugging the phone is the right approach.”
“Simon,” Annie spoke the two syllables in a hesitating plead, “Could you speak to him?”
Simon looked pained, “Well…”
“Simon. Listen, it’s been nearly two years since he dropped out. It’s been bad enough having a son who seemed to be a complete and utter loser, but now it seems we’ve got a son who’s a toy-boy, or, or, worse and we can’t let it go on. If he wants to carry on living here, he needs to tell us what the hell he’s up to.” Annie’s voice was increasing in volume. “I think we’ve got a right to know. We keep him, we feed him, we give him a roof over his head. He’s our son and I’m not being a control freak just because I want to know what my own flesh and blood is up to!”
Without any warning sounds, the sitting room door suddenly opened. Adam stood in the doorway wearing an unfathomable expression. He was barefoot and still dressed in his suit trousers and the same plain T-shirt. He held a white envelope in his hand. Annie made an immediate effort to turn her features from what she imagined was a look of fury to one of objective interest, although she knew he must have heard every word she said. Her inner rage turned from Adam to herself: the Worst Mother in the World.
Adam sat down on the far end of the three-seater sofa from Annie, forming the point of a triangle with Simon on his other side in the armchair. He held a book in his hand, which he seemed to be taking pains to conceal under the A4 envelope.
“Mum, I’m sorry about that row yesterday. Sorry about your saucepan.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry – I shouldn’t have yelled like that – you didn’t know. It doesn’t matter. The pan’s fine, anyway.”
“Well, if it’s not, I can pay for another one.” Adam’s face had the too serious air of someone trying not to smile.
The woman must be paying him. Annie knew it.
Simon chipped in, “I didn’t think you had any money, though, Adam. In fact, your mother and I thought you were in debt.” Simon was doing a masterly job of neutrality on his features. The eternal diplomat.
“Well, I was a bit, but I’m not now.” His face exploded into a grin and he began to laugh, “You won’t believe it, but I’ve won some money.”
“Won?” Simon’s features crumpled into concern. Annie knew what he was thinking. So, it was gambling now.
“Yeah, I’ve won a competition.” Still his handsome face couldn’t restrain its beaming smile, “Best Debut Novel. Ten thousand pounds!”
“Nov…?” Simon’s words were stuck. He swallowed.
“Ten thousand? Best debut novel?” repeated Annie in a shriek. She began to laugh, “Is that what you’ve been doing for the last two years?”
Simon again, “But why didn’t you tell us?”
“I didn’t want to disappoint you if it was no good. I didn’t want to let you down. I’d given myself two years and if I couldn’t do it, I was going to re-apply for uni, but I’ve got a publishing contract now, so…”
“Oh, my God! Are you going to let us read it?”
“We’ll have to get it into all the branch libraries! What’s it called?”
Without making eye-contact, Adam reached forward to pass the tome to his father. A grin of paternal pride so transformed Simon's features that only a vestigial trace remained of the reserved man Annie thought she knew. He held the book aloft, like a trophy, and read the title, "'No Time for Losers' by Adam Thomas."
Just as he was about to open the book, and before Annie could ask any more questions, Sophie appeared at the door. Or the girl once known as Sophie. Her thick dark hair had been cut into a severely asymmetric style, revealing one ear which was now decorated with serried earrings rising from lobe to tip. There also - unless Annie was much mistaken - appeared to be a red jewel gleaming in one exquisite curve of her nose.
“Hi, what’s all the noise?” she asked.
Stunned, Annie threw a look at Simon. Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head. Annie understood.
“Hi, Sophie,” she said with a fond smile, “Come in and we’ll tell you all about it.”