Increasingly unravelled by so much of the infernal day-to-day, Henry had gradually come to wonder if the sensible thing might not be to list those irritants in some sort of order. This way, even if only very slightly, he might start to rub away at those damnable intrusions.
The comfort of a list, hastily scribbled, with options for re-drafting. The prospect had undeniable appeal. (That he might later come to list this very activity amongst his catalogue of irritants was an outcome he had, for the moment, neglected to consider.)
The silence in which his parents sat, distracted by television and wearying domestic tasks.
The way in which the river lay heavy and dull, not roaring or even flowing at pace, but as if cast in lead: at rest, barely a river at all.
The ineffectual lethargy of his work.
Food. All of it, really.
Of course, the news.
Andrew. (His things, still insistently claiming space.)
Animals: intrinsically sad.
That morning, with little in the way of distraction from the humid fug that glued his collar to his neck, and oddly roused by the prospect of being amongst people for the first time in a week or more, Henry locked his front door as if sealing off a secret, terrible world. The house would be glad of the chance to breathe free of his fitful presence.
He dismissed his list for the moment as he hopped kerbs and dodged the cyclists who conspired in packs along the city’s backstreets.
He crossed the grey river and entered the cool hall.
In front of his favourite Modigliani, he paused. How long had it been? A year? Longer? He sunk, as was his wretched habit, into its calming reds and browns; he clung to its watchful presence.
A man, watching him. Dark suit. Shoes, brown and serious. A weighty man, older than him, with bearing. Such an intrusion!
The man smiled softly at his feet, before looking up. There was no choice but to speak.
‘That’s quite rude,’ Henry began.
The man nodded. Mock-rueful. ‘It is. You’re right.’
What could possibly follow? No apology. Instead, that smile again and a motion to join him as he sat and regarded the painting.
‘A little.’ Henry shrugged and crossed his legs, leaving the shoe with the shameful scuff safely on the floor.
‘I don’t know…’ The man trailed off, inclining his head.
‘You not keen?’
‘I like the colours. And, weirdly, the size. I’m not sure if I’d want to look at it that often if I had it at home.’
‘If you had this at home, I’d imagine you would have considerably more interesting things to look at,’ Henry ventured and then immediately regretted it, pulling in his eyebrows.
The stranger laughed regardless. A kind man, then? Perhaps. A big man, for sure.
‘I think you’re right. I’m Richard, by the way,’ he said, glancing at the phone he pulled from his breast pocket before dismissively replacing it. ‘And you are..?’
The (infuriating) sadness of hotels, Henry knew well.
‘I’m going to add you to a list,’ he announced and, at this, Richard turned and laughed.
‘A list of your favourite… one afternoon stands?’
Richard placed his glass – Henry could not remember what it had contained – delicately onto the table on his side of the bed. It was quite close to the edge.
The man’s self-regard was appalling – he would have to be told.
‘It’s quite a long list,’ Henry lied.
A thin shaft of afternoon sun fingered its way through the curtains and lit the sheets with a wan, stringy light. As he prepared to continue, and as Richard shifted his weight to listen, the next step became quite clear.
Gary Kaill writes about music and books for various outlets, including The Skinny magazine and The Quietus. His stories have been published by Fictive Dream and Reflex Fiction. He is studying MA Creative Writing at MMU, where he is completing his first novel. He is co-editor of Lunate Fiction online.