Contains strong language.
Gregor’s phone beeps. A message. Claire.
Awright, G-man? Wer havin a fire doon the beach – bring booze & sumthn 2 BURN!!!xoxoxo
This is it. At last, a chance to redeem himself after… Gregor pushes the thought from his mind. No time to think of past defeats. This is now. This is his hour. This is his chance to prove he belongs at the cool table.
And from Claire as well – that’s what really excites him. She’s the whole reason he wants in with the gang anyway – to be closer to her. Sure, they’d drifted apart since primary school – and who could blame her? They’re not kids any more, they can’t just keep hanging out because their mums hang out – she had to make her own identity, live her own life. Gregor understands that, he gets it. So he’d given her space while she’d gone off and made friends, came out of her shell as the popular kid he always knew she could be.
And now it was paying off! He knew she hadn’t forgotten about him. And that time when she pointed at him, and he’d given a shy wave across the quad, and all the other kids had laughed… well, he knew what it was like. He knew sometimes you had to take down someone else to build yourself up higher. That was just the cut and thrust of high school politics, wasn’t it? Anyway, she was making it back up to him now – having asserted herself within the group, now she was reaching out an olive branch that he could grab onto and haul himself into their life raft of coolness. He throws on his black hoodie, grabs his backpack and tentatively opens his bedroom door.
Mum and dad are in the living room, watching Strictly. He sneaks downstairs, passes through the hallway behind them into the kitchen, checks the cupboard underneath the microwave – bingo, the alcohol stash. Mum’s gin – well, he wasn’t bringing that. Gin was an old lady drink, wasn’t it? Not that his mum was an old lady but… come on, the Queen drinks gin. He couldn’t show up with that. What else – a bottle of rosé wine? Yeah right – he’d be laughed out of town quicker than you could say ‘poof juice.’ Aha, here we go – a bottle of Southern Comfort that they’d bought for Uncle Bobby at Christmas, but that he wasn’t able to take back to Madrid cos he only brought carry-on baggage with him. ‘Whit ye really need is carry-oot baggage,’ he’d said, and they’d all given their traditional Uncle Bobby laugh-groan. Anyway – Southern Comfort was a cool drink. Practically whisky, wasn’t it? A man’s drink.
‘Gregor, whit ye up tae?’ His mum enters the kitchen behind him, aiming for the kettle.
‘Eh… nothin’, just… gettin’ a drink! Of juice! Em… scuse me!’ He bolts for the toilet under the stair, slamming the door and bolting it after him. He can hear his dad through the door, shouting from his armchair.
‘Stop slammin’ the doors, for fuck’s sake! How many times?’
‘Wheesht Tam, he was caught short.’ Embarrassing as standard, but better than the truth, Gregor thinks. Had she seen him take the bottle? Was she covering for him? Or had she genuinely thought he was about to shit himself? It doesn’t matter – all he has to do now is wait til she’s settled back in the living room, bolt for the front door and-
bring booze & sumthn 2 BURN!!!xoxoxo
Fuck. Fuck. What the hell did he have he could throw on a fire? He probably could’ve grabbed one of those naff teddies Uncle Bobby always brought back on visits – the stuffed donkeys wearing sombreros and that stuff – but they’re all in his room and he doesn’t want to risk extending his stay in the house – he’s primed for exit. He looks around in a panic. His eye alights on the solution.
Yeah, that’ll burn. And it probably won’t be immediately missed either – it’ll be one of those things that isn’t there and you look at the room and think, ‘what’s different about this place?’ without exactly being able to put your finger on it. Ok, so maybe it’s not the coolest fuel source in the world but… fuck it. Gregor grabs it, rolls it up, stuffs it into his backpack alongside the Southern Comfort. It’ll have to do.
‘Mum, dad, I’m away out, be back soon, see you!’ Then the door’s slammed behind him and he’s off down the garden path and running right up the road, just able to make out his dad’s cursing through the open living room window. It was a trick Claire had taught him when they were 12 – keep the air flooded with your own words and they won’t have a chance to butt in before you’re out the door and free. Use the front door slam as an exclamation mark – you’ll be long gone by the time they’re up and able to question you.
She’s not stupid, Gregor thinks as he jogs to the beach. She’s actually really smart – was in the same group as him for reading and writing in P7, even in the group above him for maths (he’s not so strong with numbers). She’s just… toned it down since she got to high school, to make it easier to make friends. Again, Gregor gets it – there are certain things, like your sense of humour or your knowledge of swearwords, that are impressive from the off. Your high algebra scores and your merit certificate from Mrs Donaldson – well, you just keep those quiet. Like your friendship with the fat, gawky kid who comes to visit with his mum every Sunday – keep it on the down-low. You’re not gonna make any friends bragging about that.
He hears the group before he sees the orange glow of the fire – someone (probably Liam) has brought fireworks and they’re screeching off into the night. Fuck, fireworks – that would’ve been the perfect thing to bring. Not that Gregor would’ve found any in the house, and he’d be petrified of going to buy them – was he even allowed to buy them at his age? That’s the sort of thought that wouldn’t bother Liam, Gregor thinks – come to think of it, most thoughts don’t bother Liam. He smirks then wipes it quickly off his face. Come on now, Gregor. Game face. Don’t go messing this up by acting smarter than them. Even if you are.
‘Hhh… ahem, uh, hEY guys!’ The greeting comes out embarrassingly loud with a pubescent crack in it – immediately they turn and jeer at him, mimicking. ‘hEY guys! hEY guys!’ He smiles bashfully and bows his head – not a strong start. Thankfully, Claire steps in to rescue him, smiling widely.
‘Gregor! Aw, thank fuck you made it – thought you’d never make it out the house!’
He puts major effort into making his voice as stable as possible over the next sentence, even as his heart races. ‘Uh, yeah, it was no problem, just… snuck out.’ Feeling this isn’t enough, he ignores the blaring warning siren in his head and ploughs on: ‘My parents were watching Strictly.’
‘Oooh, my parents were watching Strictly! Come, darling, we’re watching Strictly!’ Two of the guys grab each other in a clumsy ballroom hold and start waltzing round the fire, until one of them trips up and sends the other flying. They become too busy wrestling each other to continue mocking Gregor. Claire grabs his hand and sits him down on a log beside her.
‘Did you manage to bring any booze?’
‘Uh, yeah, just grabbed a bottle of, uh, Southern Comfort out the kitchen.’
‘Southern Comfort? That’s like Jack Daniel’s for poofs, eh?’
‘Fuck off, Liam,’ snaps Claire before Gregor can say a word. ‘I drink it all the time with lemonade. Anyway, that’s why he brought it – cos I specifically asked for it, didn’t I honey?’ She takes the bottle from his hand, uncaps it and takes a deep swig, then, mouth still full, gives him a peck on the cheek.
She. Gives. Him. A. Peck. On. The. Cheek. Even if Gregor could move he wouldn’t want to. He lets the wet warmth of her lips linger on his cheek then cool in the night air. He looks at Liam, who’s scowling on the other side of the fire – and Gregor recognises, this time, that silence is his friend; that gloating will get him a swift kicking, if not now then later. In fact, a swift kicking is no doubt in his future anyway, but for the time being he can be the strong, silent type, revelling in the glory of-
‘And what else you got in here – aw great, did you bring something for the fire?’
Yes he – oh wait, no, fuck, no, no, no no no no-
‘A… bathmat?’ She wrinkles her nose at him. The dancing-wrestling boys pick themselves up and brush the sand off their clothes, dimly aware that a greater sport is about to begin. Gregor quickly tries to regain control of the narrative.
‘Uh, yeah… Haha, it’s dumb, I know, it was just the first thing I could grab-’
‘Nawww, come on Gregsy, dinnae be shy,’ says Liam, a malicious glint in his eye. ‘We remember whit happened last time – at Stacey’s empty, d’you no remember? Naw, course ye wouldnae, ye were a wee bit drunk oan yer Bacardi Breezers that time, eh?’
‘Och, Liam, leave off, eh-’
‘It’s awright Claire, he kin stick up fir hissel, eh Gregsy?’ Gregor, thrust into the spotlight, just stares at his shoes. The problem with being smarter than everyone else is that you know the punchline before they do but can’t do anything to stop it, like an on-rushing train made of pure humiliation.
‘After aw, a guy wi Gregsy’s toilet troubles – a bath mat’s probably mair like a comfort blanket, eh?’ The gang bursts into howls of laughter. Even Claire spurts out a mouthful of the rapidly-diminishing Southern Comfort, drawing a hand across her mouth to wipe away the mess.
‘Aw, come on now, it’s awright Gregs- I mean Gregor-’ she cuts off in a fit of the giggles. Over the fire, Liam grins triumphant. Gregor finds small consolation in the fact that the scalding blush he can feel spilling across his face and neck can probably be attributed to the heat of the fire.
‘You huvtae admit – it was pretty funny,’ she says, still laughing. Her hand rests on his shoulder, but it seems to have a distancing effect now – a sort of ‘you sit there and I’ll sit this far away from you’ instead of ‘welcome to the gang’.
‘Yeah, I guess… I was just, uh, sooo drunk that night,’ he says. He doesn’t remember much, Liam’s got that right, though he can still feel the cold, damp feeling in his lap as his mum gave him a lift home (after Claire called her, with the rest of the party snickering in the background – all of which made it onto the initial voicemail).
‘Well, mon then Gregsy – chuck it oan, unless yer too attached tae it?’ says Liam. Gregor shrugs and disconsolately lugs the bath mat onto the fire. It lands half on the flames, and for one horrified moment he fears it’s going to extinguish the whole thing, landing his reputation even further in the shitter – he permits himself a bitter inward smirk at the semi-pun – but then Claire spits a mouthful of Southern Comfort on the fire and it flares up, green flickers dancing amid the heart of orange flame.
His point made – this is my gang and you’re not in it – Liam allows the conversation to drift onto other topics, Claire bantering energetically with him and draining the last of the Southern Comfort while Gregor sits lumpen at her side. He lets an hour pass before he makes his excuses and leaves – long enough to make it seem like he wasn’t too bothered by the slagging, he figures. As he gets up to go, nobody tries too hard to dissuade him from leaving – he’s not even worth keeping around for the entertainment value, he realises. Claire, somewhat glassy-eyed, reaches for his hand as he’s leaving, and manages to grab onto it on her second try and give it a gentle squeeze.
‘Cheers for bringin’ oot the booze, Gregor,’ she says. ‘And, uh, it was really nice to see you oot. Catch you at school, aye?’
‘Yeah Gregsy, catch you at school,’ the group choruses before breaking into another gale of hyena-howl laughter. Gregor waves meekly and shuffles out of the light of the fire, into the darkness.
‘Gregor, z’at you?’ says his mum, a half hour later as he gently closes the front door. She emerges from the kitchen and takes him in. ‘Where ye been? Aw, actually, dinnae anwer – ye reek ae smoke. Goan chuck yer claes in the washin’, I’ll dae them the morn.’ He nods dumbly and begins his slow ascent upstairs.
‘Och, and’ve ye seen the doonstairs bath mat?’
#TheObjects is a weekly short story project, each edition inspired by something or other I find in the street. If you’ve found something interesting (or own an object you’d like to see immortalised in fiction), send a pic to firstname.lastname@example.org along with any info you feel is relevant and I’ll see what I can do.