Here is a little extract from my latest short story collection, Fairy Lights.
Try Before You Die
“Here, open it.”
The tattily wrapped present was thrust inelegantly into Jason’s face, narrowly missing his eye. He stepped backwards, instinct protecting him as it usually did. The boy looked up at his father who was swaying, not quite drunk but nearly, hoping to be soon, and half smiled. Unsure. Unwilling to do much more.
“What is it?” He did not reach for the gift as it wavered unsteadily in front of him. He did not want it. It reeked of something bad, something off and wrong. It appeared to be leaking. Something was seeping through the pink wrapping paper (Birthday Girl!) leaving an orange-brown stain over his father’s fat fingers. It was greasy and thick, the oil leaching out and spreading.
But Jason’s hesitancy was not noticed. Nothing was ever noticed when it came to Jason and his father, George, and again the thing was propelled towards him. “You’ll see when you open it.”
There wasn’t much else that Jason could do other than take the proffered offering. His fingers curled around the thing, uneasy. The slimy feel of the grease made his stomach roll over and the smell, now that it was closer, crawled up his nose and sat there, picking at his brain, poking at his senses, making sure that he was aware of it.
He was most definitely aware of it.
Jason’s nose crinkled and his forehead furrowed and he desperately wanted to wipe his hands on something, anything, the carpet, the walls, George’s face. Instead he looked to his father who was grinning, yellowing teeth like broken gravestones protruding from behind thin, cracked lips that had had too much alcohol poured over them down the years.
“Son, you’ve got to open it, I’m not telling you what it is.” The grin faltered, widened, stuck. “I got it right, didn’t I? It is your birthday, isn’t it?”
Jason nodded. Yes, it was his birthday. He was eighteen. Despite his father being a drunk and a waste of space, he had been expecting something more than this whatever it was that smelt strange and felt strange and was wrapped in pretty pink paper.
He could delay no longer. With one smooth riiiiiippp the paper was gone. It fell to the floor in a greasy heap, no doubt staining the carpet and creating another mess for Jason to clear up.
He looked down at what he had been left holding. Yes, it was his eighteenth birthday, and he had been expecting more than an ancient cook book caked in unidentifiable stains and smears and smudges. The pages, when he tried to leaf through them, when he tried to feign interest, stuck together with Christ knew what.
Jason clutched the book – Meals To Try Before You Die, the author’s name completely obscured now – so that he didn’t drop it. He felt his mouth open. He felt his mouth move. He had no idea what he had said.
But he had said something.
George clapped him on the back and laughed. “You’re welcome, son, I know how much you enjoy cooking, and when I saw it, I thought of you.”
Jason nodded and smiled and laughed and wished he could have a drink like his dad. He did not enjoy cooking. He hated it. Despised it. Begrudged having to do it. But, since his mother had died and his father had become a full time alcoholic five years earlier, he hadn’t had much choice.
It was either cook or starve.
Given the choice, Jason would have opted for a takeaway pizza or a bit of chicken chow mein. But money was tight since no one was working and now the only takeaways Jason saw were on TV.
“Wow, thanks, Dad.” The words felt flat in his mouth, and he couldn’t bear to look at his father in case the man’s face had registered that Jason wasn’t exactly pleased with the present. As much as he hated George, as much as he believed he was a useless slob who could have been so much more than he was, Jason also loved him, and didn’t want to hurt him. Not intentionally.
He couldn’t get excited about a dirty old book. Second hand wasn’t an issue – most of Jason’s clothing was pre-owned, most of everything in the house was – but the state of it. George hadn’t even tried to clean it up.
“Guess where I got it?” The man was almost bouncing on the balls of his feet where he stood, excitement and pleasure making his legs move of their own accord. Of course, he was still smiling, big and stupid.
Jason shook his head. A charity shop? A bin? A tramp’s trousers? “Where, Dad?” Play along, play along, and soon enough it will be over – George in a snoring heap, Jason watching TV, the volume up loud to dilute his father’s snuffles and grunts.
George stepped forward and wrapped his arm around his son’s shoulders. He pushed him gently towards the sofa, and Jason flinched at the sour beer breath that reeked out at him. He held his own breath, hating that he had to do it, hating that he was craving the same thing. So far he had resisted. But he had a feeling that it wouldn’t be long. Not if things kept going in the way they were going.
If you can’t beat them… What other choice was there? What else was there to do?
They sat together, father and son, closer than they had been in many a month now, even though neither noticed, the book lying on Jason’s knee, stale and stinking.
“I was given it.” There was pride in the voice that spoke the words. As though this was something of great significance, of huge importance. Something of meaning. It meant nothing to Jason. He almost shrugged but thought better of it, preferring instead to cock his head to one side and pretend to want to know more.
“You know that restaurant out by the beach? The famous one?”
Jason did know it. Because it was famous. Very famous. Ridiculously expensive and horribly exclusive, Jason hated it even though he had never stepped foot inside. Not that he would want to. Tiny portions of food, elegantly arranged on a massive white plate, all accompanied with a dot of jus that was so small you couldn’t taste it was not his idea of food.
“What about it?” Jason eyed the book again, started to touch the pages, to flick through. Unsticking them, pulling them apart and peeling them away from each other. There were no pictures, just lists of ingredients and step by step instructions on how to make whatever was intended to be made. His stomach growled. He hoped it wasn’t due to the dead food smell.
Jason’s father sat up straight, and slapped his hands down onto his knees, leaving oily smears on his jeans. “That’s where I got it from. That restaurant. And, not only that, but it’s signed. By Louis Cutter himself.” The man slid the book from Jason’s grasp and opened it at the first page. There was a small dark scribble, a squiggle which may or may not have been Louis Cutter’s autograph.
Despite himself, despite his serious reservations, Jason was impressed. Louis Cutter was a celebrity. He was on television. Even though the mark in the front of the book could have been anything, he chose to believe his father’s story.
It was his eighteenth. He could believe whatever he wanted, just for today.
“Did you see him sign it?” Jason had to know more. He didn’t want to ask, just in case his father slipped up and the whole sad truth came out, a truth which wasn’t what Jason wanted to hear.
His father nodded, licking his lips, sucking at his tongue. Thirsty. Jason thought about getting him a drink, started to stand. It was so ingrained now, so much a part of things. They both knew what it was doing. And neither could stop it.
“I saw him do it. I saw him sign it. Outside his restaurant, right there, just as I was passing. He ran outside, jotted his name in the front, and handed it to me.” The man’s teeth were grinding now. He was getting to the end of his ability to put off the inevitable. “Didn’t say a word. But it was like he was waiting for me, you know?”
Jason smiled, patted his father’s hand, heaved himself off the sofa, struggling against the old, soft cushions that tried to keep him with them. “That’s a good story, Dad.”
It was a good story. It wasn’t entirely true, but it was good.
The chef had come out of the restaurant, and he had been clutching the book, but he hadn’t signed it. His wide, desperate eyes had scanned the street and come to rest upon Jason’s father. With a wave and a whistle he had called him over. “Do me a favour,” he had said, holding the book out to the other man. “You don’t look like a cooking kind of man. Take this, keep it safe, give it back when I ask. If I ask. And don’t use it. Never use it.”