LOOKING AFTER • by Jonathan Cardew

Dave Jones awakes to the sound of next-door’s children screaming and fighting. The walls are paper-thin on Bowness Road, almost no point to them. He imagines clear glass all the way through the terraces, from number twenty-four to number forty-eight; people dressing, taking showers, eating breakfast. Mostly, he pictures Samantha Fountain in number thirty-six.

Samantha must only be forty; thirty-odd years younger than he is. She is alone like Dave. She has kids — a ten year-old boy and an eight year-old girl — but no husband; at least no husband around.

Dave dresses for the day and walks downstairs. He puts on the kettle, feeds the cat, and tugs the newspaper from the letterbox, tearing it in the process.

He sits out the morning. The thought of seeing Samantha tonight churns his stomach, makes him feel like a love-struck sixteen year-old again with nothing better to do but smile, as if smiling could change things. Lunch approaches. A phone call comes in from a local politician’s canvasser — something about corruption in the council and a by-election. The sun dips in and out of the clouds, and his cat, Tammy, makes loops around his ankles for more food while he feeds himself cup after cup of tea.

The canvasser calls again in the afternoon. It’s a mistake, but Dave cringes as he hears himself spit out his annoyance at the young woman. He cringes especially at the change in her voice; the measured and careful way she forms her sentences in apology; the overly sweet goodbye. The way you speak to an old man.

The tone sticks as he prepares himself for the night, and Samantha. A new shirt, the old cologne. He stands in the mirror and combs his hair. He looks like a shabby funeral-goer: awkward, a whiff of desperation in the attempt. He has no idea how to dress for this kind of thing. And he has no idea what this kind of thing is. If it is a thing.

He walks out later into the brisk air, practicing the greeting — simple stuff, just with tone changes:

“Hi Samantha, you look wonderful” (steady, balanced).

“Hi Samantha, you look wonderful” (stress on you).

“Hi Samantha, you look wonderful” (surprise, regret).

At Samantha’s doorway, he runs his hand through his hair before knocking.

“Oh my goodness, you’re early,” she exclaims, her make-up case spilling open in her hand and a hair-curler lodged under her armpit. Her hair is black and wet and perfumed. “Come in, come in — I’ll put the kettle on!”

Dave follows her perfume through the house. The house is alive with music and the thrum of a dishwasher. There is the warmth of an oven. As he follows her, he wants to formulate this impression with words, let her know what a difference this is to what his own life is like — but the quick movement through the rooms disorients him. When they reach the kitchen, he catches his reflection in the French window; he looks haggard, hair arranged strangely on top of his head — a trick of the glass, or not.

“All set?” he manages gruffly, after a time, still staring at himself in the reflection.

She spins around from the kettle. “Absolutely. Thank you so much for this! I haven’t been out on the town for ages.”

He sits at the kitchen table while Samantha finishes getting ready upstairs. The creaks and groans of the floorboards sound just like the creaks and groans of the floorboards in his house when Henrietta was still alive. He would be doing the same thing: sipping his tea and waiting for her at the kitchen table.

“There.” Samantha appears in the doorway of the kitchen. “How do I look?”

Before he can say a word, Samantha’s boy bursts in through the French window. He pauses when he sees Dave, turns to his mum. “Who’s this?”

“Don’t be so rude, Jack,” Samantha snaps. “This is Mr. Jones. He lives at number 28.”

“Oh. Great, bye.”

Samantha rolls her eyes as he darts up the stairs. “Dinner’s in the oven, Jack!” she shouts after him, and then, “Oh Jesus, is that the time?”

They link arms to the doorway. Samantha’s flesh brushes against his elbow as they walk in tight formation. He has all of his words in his mind somewhere, shapeless now, vague. She rests her head on his shoulder, momentarily.

“Thanks. You don’t know what this means to me. Are you sure I can’t pay you something?” she says, touching his arm with a finger. “They’ll be as good as gold, you know. You won’t hear a peep from them all night.”

“I don’t need any money,” he replies, sensing that hint of annoyance in his voice again, which he quickly corrects: “Just enjoy yourself. Just have a great time, okay?”

Samantha smiles, and pecks his cheek quickly, before heading down Bowness Road. Her high heels clip at the pavement like a stutter. A cab pulls alongside her and she slips smoothly through the large, open door.

Before she closes the door, Dave calls out her name. She pauses, concerned. Her eyes, her forehead, her open mouth are all expecting the information from afar — and there is a real moment when he is going to say it, he is going to get it out — but it passes and he waves her away.

He watches the cab pull quickly into the traffic of Walkley Lane and disappear towards the city. The night air is cool, and he feels the heat and light of Samantha’s house behind him, and the hours of waiting ahead.

Jonathan Cardew is a British short fiction writer living in Wisconsin. He has had short stories published in Segue, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and The Postcard Press, among others.

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