SHORT STORY: Pick Up by Graham Wynd

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She might have been a looker once, before the years and the beers and the weight of them had pulled on her cheeks like anchors. She had sailed into this bar perhaps by chance or even by design, but it was late enough in the evening that Frank thought why not. This one or any other would do well enough to shut the noise of scratching defeat out of his ears for a few hours anyway.

‘I’m Frank,’ he said, sidling up to her with all the aplomb he could muster. Not as smooth as it would have been a few hours ago, but then she wasn’t what she was a few hours gone by.

‘That’s always good to hear,’ she said, smiling but not looking up from her glass at once.

‘Sorry?’

She looked up at him then and he had a chance to admire the blue of her eyes and the dimple in her cheek before he noticed how many more lines there were and adjusted her age beyond thirty. No matter.

‘I like men who are Frank. It makes life easier.’ The longer she smiled, the more genuine it looked and he found himself responding. She stuck out a hand and he took it without thinking. ‘Bernice.’

‘A good old-fashioned name,’ Frank said settling himself on the stool next to hers.

She laughed. It was a good sound. He straightened up on his chair without realising it. 

‘You mean I’m old.’

‘You’re not old.’

‘Mature then,’ Bernice said with a touch of bitterness, but then she smiled again. ‘Like scotch. Isn’t that what they call it? Maturing?’

‘I’m a beer drinker myself. I don’t know much about the finer things in life.’ Frank thought things were going well. He didn’t have a lot of options that night and it could be far worse. Recently he’d bedded a few college coeds who were about as dim as a ten-watt bulb. The state of higher education these days!

‘I used to know more about the finer things in life. Before I hooked up with a lawyer. Never get involved with the law. Who was it who said, the law is an arse?’

‘Most people I expect.’ Frank laughed.

‘The law isn’t just an arse. It’s a vindictive arsehole who will take you for everything you have and some that you don’t.’ She sipped her beer and glanced up at him again. A flicker of a smile, rueful almost—it affected him more than he would have thought possible. ‘But beer is cheap, right? What’s better than a pint of Guinness?’

‘Or three,’ Frank said affably as he waved  to the barman. The lad un-slouched himself and grudgingly made his way down to them. ‘Two more.’

Bernice lowered her head in a sort of nod, acknowledging the offer. Far more than three, both of them, but it was polite to maintain the pretence of distant sobriety. But this would have to be the last. More than that and he might prove incapable, as he had learned to his distinct alarm recently.

Youth was wasted on the young, but wasted, he was reminded just how much he was no longer youthful.

As they waited for the pints to be pulled, Frank thought it was worth planting the seeds he hoped to sow soon. ‘But you’re free of the lawyer and the law now. Free and easy.’ Inwardly he snickered. Emphasis on the latter he was counting on.

‘Oh, I’m free all right,’ Bernice said connecting up the dots of condensation on the smooth oak surface of the bar. ‘No strings on me. Free as a bird. Like the song.’

‘I know that song. I know that feeling.’ Frank felt confident all would be well.

The bartender put the pints before them and Frank paid without haste. The nice thing about this place was you could still get a couple of pints and change back from your tenner. The old neighbourhood had its rewards. He’d regretted coming back here, regretted the failure it represented. But he was doing all right. He would bounce back.

He waited until they had both drunk down to the last third of the pint to suggest they move to more comfortable environs. ‘I do have a little bit of single malt, if I can tempt you.’ Usually Frank preferred to go to the woman’s place. They were nicer, for one thing. And it made it easier to get away.

But his experience with older women is that they were practically allergic to morning light and wanted to get on their way right soon more often than not. Also he wanted a good lie in tomorrow. It was Sunday and he didn’t have to go anywhere particular. He could lounge on the sofa and watch old movies. 

Bernice smiled and looked off into the distance. ‘I am tempted. If only because it’s so late and so dark. No snow, no promises to keep.’ She glanced at Frank as if expecting him to understand her words but they were clear as mud.

‘No need to be cold on your own,’ he said, hoping it was enough.

It was. She came willingly, quietly, passive and almost meek. It was a relief really. He felt tired suddenly. Maybe it was the beers, maybe it was the years. Frank felt a twinge of regret that he hadn’t formed a relationship more lasting than a month or two because there was something appealing about the idea of being comfortable with someone. Imagine not having to don that mask of propriety; just being yourself.

But he knew from experience that himself was not enough to keep a woman’s interest. They expected work. They expected some kind of participation. He clearly wasn’t interested enough for that. He just wanted what he wanted.

Frank poured out what was left of the bottle of Lagavulin, a holiday gift from his sister. Say what you would about her and that dull husband of hers, they were generous enough with the giving. ‘What shall we toast to?’

‘Chance encounters?’ Bernice laughed, the first time she had done so. He liked the sound of it. The room seemed a little warmer for all its stark corners. Little more than a hotel room, it had been enough he thought. Enough for a time whilst he figured out what the hell he was going to do. Enough to poke him, to rouse him from this aimless drifting maybe.

Time enough to think about that tomorrow. There was a good Alastair Sim picture on at ten. He used to watch those with his gran. Good stuff.

‘Shall we—?’ Bernice made the first move and he was grateful. He was tired. It was too much work all of the sudden to try to seduce her. In the bedroom she plopped her bag down on the night stand and started stripping off her clothes as easy as if it were a locker room, which made him shy all of the sudden.

Frank turned away and busied himself undressing and flicking off the light. He slipped under the covers to find her warm and waiting. ‘Hello again.’

‘You don’t seem like a bad guy,’ Bernice said quietly as his hand slipped along her arm and then under the covers.

‘I think I’m about average,’ Frank said with a chuckle. Her body was pretty good. He could feel himself rising to the challenge already.

‘Probably so.’ Bernice said, her voice betraying a little fatigue as well. 

‘How about a kiss?’ Frank pulled himself closer.

‘Oh, just let me get this,’ Bernice said, turning to grab something from her handbag. 

A condom, Frank supposed. She better let him get it up first. At least she was prepared. He hadn’t thought to worry about it. Pickings had been slim at the local lately. He cupped her breast and leaned in for a kiss again as Bernice put her arm around his neck.

There was something wet pouring on his shoulder. What the hell? ‘What the hell?’

Frank fumbled to put the light on. He saw the red handprint on the lamp. There was red flowing down on the sheets, on his chest. Bernice had one of those old-fashioned straight razors like his granddad used in her hand. There were flecks of blood on her face. ‘Sorry.’ 

‘Sorry?!’ Frank tried to put his hands on the slickness to hold together the flaps of skin. ‘Call emergency services! Get an ambulance…’ Bernice seemed a little dazed or maybe still drunk. Maybe she hadn’t realised—what the fuck! You couldn’t slit someone’s throat by accident.

‘I need a shower,’ Bernice said, stifling a yawn. She wiped the blood from the blade on the duvet cover, folded it and put it away in her handbag. ‘Have you ever been so cross at the world, nothing makes you feel better except seeing someone bleed?’

‘No,’ Frank said, feeling light-headed. ‘I can’t say I have.’ He swayed a little. Keep your head, Frank.

Bernice smiled. ‘I have. Several times. And it always makes me feel better.’

Keep your hand on the wound, Frank reminded himself. He had seen it on CSI or something. Pressure on the wound, that’s what he needed. And his phone! That’s it. If she wouldn’t call, he could call. It was just over there in his trouser pocket. Swing his legs out of the bed, easy.

His vision faded to black and then came back. Breathe. It would be all right. Bernice stood in the doorway watching him. Damn her anyway. ‘Aren’t you going to help me?’ he could hear the wheeze in his voice. Frank fell to his knees. Someone played a bongo in his ears.

‘Honestly Frank,’ Bernice said with a touch of malice, ‘if I can be frankly honest, is the world going to miss you much?’ She turned on her heel and disappeared, presumably to shower.

Frank tried to hobble on his hand and knees but the symphony in his ears grew and his arm was too weak to hold him suddenly. He couldn’t be sure his fingers were still holding the edges of the wound together. The carpet stank. How had he never noticed that?

‘Why?’ his lips made the word but there was no sound. He could hear the water running until the sound filled his head.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour, Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub.

Goodreads author page

Amazon author page


OUT NOW – Love is a Grift by Graham Wynd

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