The time was getting on, and so Bryce downed the last of his pint and got up from the seat.
The pub was three quarters full and getting busier; karaoke would start in an hour, and although he sometimes got a kick out of the way people behaved behind the microphone, tonight he had to take a pass.
“Time to get up the road,” he said. His friends knew why.
He hated what he was about to do, having been through it several times before.
He hated how these things made him feel.
Hated the compromises he knew he’d have to make.
Across the table, Chris Hay wore a slight smile on his face, a supportive smile. Taylor, to his left, got up and gave him a hug. Bryce was grateful to have such friends. He felt something catch in his throat.
He swallowed back hard. Getting emotional wouldn’t help.
“Right,” he said, “catch you guys later.”
He walked out of the pub into a rain lashed night.
He pulled the collars of his jacket up and started the short walk home.
Cars went past, their lights illuminating the shops across the way; a couple stood against a wall, hiding under the awning; a taxi idling, waiting for someone coming out of another bar.
A dog barked a street away. Something smashed somewhere.
A horn let out a long blast and something inteligible was shouted out a car window.
He walked swiftly up to the corner and turned left. He could see the house from there; the lights in the living room were on.
He put his hands in his pockets, dropped his head and walked the rest of the way without looking up.
He put his key in the door, and he heard her get up in the sitting room and come into the hall before he’d even turned the handle.
As he pushed the door open and walked in he could see the giddy look on his mother’s face and all he could think was “Oh shit.”
So it was as bad as he’d heard. Dear oh dear. What a mess.
“Come away in Mikey, I can’t wait for you to two to meet,” she said.
He hung his jacket up on a peg, the water dripping off it onto the tatty carpet.
She pulled his arm, leading him into the living room, and as he came in the door he caught his first sight of Cooper, the man his mother had gotten engaged to after meeting him on a three-week bender in Blackpool.
He would be moving in the following week.
Bryce had no say in that at all. That decision had been made, and he was going to have to live with it.
All that was to be decided here was the manner in which he’d do it.
“Awright kid?” Cooper said from the faded blue sofa.
He was a pale, thin man in a moth-eaten Black Sabbath t-shirt, filthy jeans and scuzzy trainers.
She said he was in his forties, but he looked older by ten years.
The haircut looked fresh at least; grey, burned down tight, a buzz-cut, nothing too stylish for this geezer.
He was scratching his balls with one hand and holding a fag in the other.
He got to his feet, and stuck the fag in his mouth. He extended a hand.
Bryce looked at it for a moment; the tattooed knuckles read JUNE.
The U had faded. The N was broken. It looked like something the guy had once done himself, probably half pissed.
“Couldn’t get August to fit, right?” Bryce quipped, taking the hand and giving it a quick pump-and-dump.
The guy looked at him for a second, quizzical and then with tight angry eyes.
A trace of a smile crept across his face. “Aye, smart kid. She said you were.”
Cooper shook his head slightly, and Bryce felt a stab of regret for having been so deliberately provocative.
But it went quickly.
He had seen these guys come and go over the years; it was better to let this one know early that he was going to be keeping an eye on him.
Cooper clapped him on the shoulder and walked out into the hall.
“Right, Pauline, I’m away to see Chris. I’ll be back round the day after tomorrow with the gear. You just keep that side of the bed warm for me, right?” There was laughter. Bryce sat down with a groan.
He heard the front door open, then close. She came into the living room.
“So?” she asked him. “What did you think?”
“I think the guy needs a bath,” he said scornfully.
She went from optimism to anger in two seconds.
“What kind of way is that to talk? Could you not think of even one nice thing to say?”
His own anger prickled at that.
You’d think, to hear her, that he wasn’t going to have to live with the consequences of this just like her.
Oh, was this the point where he was supposed to offer this lunacy his unqualified support?
Well he was damned if he was going to do it, not now, not like this.
“I really like this guy!” she said.
He thought of the other half dozen or so guys she’d really liked over the years; only one had made a positive impression on Bryce and her nagging had driven him out the door.
Bryce was sick of picking up the pieces after these deadbeats; he had a life of his own that he wanted to go and lead, but always it was this. Always he came home to clean up the mess and no sooner had he done it but the next disaster was in progress.
“You have lousy taste, mum,” he said. “Always did. I mean, after my dad anything should have been an improvement … but no, you always find the next worse option.”
She was furious. “You don’t even know the first thing about him!”
“Who’s June?” he piped up. “Name he’s got tattooed on the knuckles?”
“It’s his wee lassie,” she shouted defiantly, but with a note of triumph. “Hasn’t seen her in years. His ex … a total cow, took the lassie away from him.”
“That’s his story, is it?”
His mother was susceptible to any old pish these folk could come up with.
She fell for this kind of patter time and time again.
“Did you ask him why this harridan kidnapped his daughter and did a runner?” he asked. “Or if he made any effort to find her?”
“It’s got nothing to do with me!” she shouted, and he supposed that she was right, but also that she was dead, dead wrong.
How could she not understand that?
“So does he work, at least?” Bryce asked.
The last one hadn’t. He had lived in the house rent free for two years and then ran up a credit card debt and did a runner to Midlothian. Having a job wasn’t a panacea against disaster, but it would be a start.
“Eh, he’s going to start looking for one when he moves in.”
He thought that charade would last about a week until everyone fell into the old routine and then even the pretence would cease and the guy would settle in to leeching and sponging and filling out credit card applications online.
“Sometimes I think you don’t want me to be happy,” she said, and that really made his anger flare up.
“Oh bullshit!” he shouted at her.
What right did she have to say that to him?
It was the cheapest of shots, an argument part based in ignorance and partly in spite.
She wanted him to tell her that everything would be okay, and he didn’t believe it would be. She was perfectly entitled to live in a fairytale if that suited her, but she was making him live in it too and in those circumstances he had rights.
And one of those rights was speaking his mind.
She couldn’t have that, and so she’d lobbed the gutterball at him, the one that all desperate people eventually resorted to when you challenged their rose-tinted view of the world.
Of course he wanted her to be happy. But the best way for her to get there was to stop making these damned half-assed, dreadful choices. He had endoresed too many of them already, and it had enabled the present nonsense.
He looked beside the sofa and found a half-empty bottle of Coke.
There was a glass on the window, and he got up, fetched it and walked back to his seat with it without saying another word.
She was watching him as he poured and took a drink.
He was aware, of course, that he was massively pre-judging this guy, and he hated to do that, because what, really, did he have to go on? A homemade (or jailhouse! part of his brain was screaming at him) tattoo, a scuffed pair of LA Gear and his mother’s lousy taste?
Could you really make a decision about someone based on vibes and intuitions?
Was that right? Was it fair?
There must be loads of guys out there who fit this general description; were they all arseholes or psychopaths? She’d been through so many of them, the chances were that she’d get one right from time to time, and hadn’t she with the one before last?
“Have you not had enough of this?” he asked. “Have you not been through enough with these sort of men?”
It was a weak argument. Some people never learned.
They didn’t know how.
“Can’t you be happy for me, son? Can’t you give him a chance, for my sake?” she asked, as he had known she would, as he had dreaded that she would.
Because how were you supposed to answer that?
It was the classic conundrum that family and friends and other loved ones almost always found a way to confront you with from time to time; they forced you to prove your love by pledging your support to every lunacy they could cook up.
A lot of the time it was harmless, but sometimes it forced you to a dreadful choice like this, one where you thought your love might be better expressed by following the guy out the door and beating him until he promised not to come back.
But of course, even if you pulled that off … you’d get no thanks for it.
You wanted the people in your life to be happy … but you couldn’t force your ideas of happiness onto them.
Instead you were forced to make choices like this; you sacrificed your own integrity, and your own good judgement, to back something you knew to be a foolish pursuit and probably damaging into the bargain.
He knew then what he’d do.
Hell, he’d known what he would do before he even got up in the pub.
He didn’t like it, that was all.
He hated it in fact, and in that moment he thought it may even be possible to hate her too. Or maybe he just wished that he did.
This was how some relationships broke up; he knew it from experience. They forced you to one bad compromise after another, because you cared, because you wanted to show you were committed, because you knew that sometimes the other person would have a better grasp on things than you and it was fair to see how it played out.
And sometimes you just gave in.
Sometimes, although every sense was screaming at you, you simply quit fighting.
Too many compromises in a relationship, and especially too many bad ones, and that started to erode the foundations.
He knew this wasn’t right but he knew too that if he tried to force the issue he’d fail. He tried to tell himself that it was better, therefore, to be inside this thing, and try to steer it correctly.
He would fail at that too, of course.
Part of his motivation was self-serving, and he knew it.
If he kept on banging on about it and it went the way it was obviously headed anyway … well, it would still be a disaster but everyone would find a way to blame him for it.
“I don’t think he’s right for you mum,” he said, playing the last card he had, knowing the argument was futile, knowing he had nothing beyond those bad vibes and her dreadful history and that he wouldn’t have been able to convince her even if he did.
In fact, the only way he’d ever get to prove his point would be if Cooper turned out to be the swine he thought he probably was.
And he didn’t want that. Of course he didn’t.
“Come on son,” she said, coming over, sitting down, putting an arm around his shoulder. “It’ll be good this time; you’ll see … different this time.”
And Bryce, who had heard it all before, who knew better than to believe a word of that, who knew it wasn’t just the bad vibes or the history but everything he’d heard about this guy since she came back from Blackpool, knew too that he would swing behind it, that he’d hold out for a day or two and then give her the affirmation she needed.
Finally, he shrugged and although it was against every good instinct he had, and ran contrary to his basic intelligence he said;
“Aye, I suppose we can give him a chance, eah?”
Just saying the words, he saw how it would all pan out if it was as bad as he thought it might be.
Having given that pledge he’d be forced to sit through all of it, until the point where he was forced to ask her to get shot of the guy, and she wouldn’t. Then would come the point where he begged her to do it, and still she would resist and still it would go on. Finally, he’d reach his breaking point and he’d tell her she had to kick Cooper into touch and that probably wouldn’t even do it … some people had to reach their own breaking point, and only then would things change.
He got up to go, and then as if she hadn’t done sufficient damage already, as if his decision to support this wasn’t enough for her, she threw in the clincher for good measure, and gave up every hostage to fortune they both had.
“I mean, what’s the worst that can happen, eah?”
He went upstairs to bed.
He didn’t even want to think about what the answer to that question might be.