Whose Story?

James took another healthy swill of his red, the crystal lightly smudged by the tight clasp of his chubby little fingers. He took a breath then rolled the stem of the glass around, content that all eyes were glued on him. That was always James’s way, however much he’d perfected the self-deprecation act. When he continued it was deliberately measured yet simultaneously extravagant. A master storyteller who had caught you in his web so many times. A carnivore who had expertly snatched you with his charming charisma and had then kept you there, hooked for decades. Ensnared by his wit. But, no longer. Those days were now a sad relic of the past.

‘So as I said, we get to this place and it isn’t up to scratch. They’ve pulled a real fast one on us. From the photos the joint looked top notch. A front deck merging into the white sand of the beach with the crystal-clear Aegean behind. Picture perfect really. The reality was that the photo was taken at such an angle that it missed out the mud and stone covered road in between and dirt bank you had to scramble over to get to the beach. A beach which, might I add, was merely par and not the white sand and crystal-clear water they doctored up on Photoshop.’

He soundtracks his words with a small laugh and as if it is a stage direction to the expectant faces clustered around him, they all join in enthusiastically. With that, James then relaxes back into the curvature of his seat, visibly happy that it’s his time now. Full in the knowledge that among this lot, as dinner party host, it was etiquette for him to be allowed to share one good, meaty story. An opportunity he never, ever passed up. Not a care for you, just for his story. H called it old white man syndrome with a roll of her eye and a sigh. That dad just loved the sound of his own voice. James would laugh in response, mocking who he was in that oh so performed self-deprecation. That’s what drew you in in the first place, back when you thought it was sincere. Even though your backgrounds were so wildly different, you had bridged your love through his awareness of who he was and who you were and how apparently none of that mattered in the slightest. And you had adored him for it and so indulged his long white-male, self-deprecating stories. Indulged is probably the wrong word. You had loved them as much as the rest of them, especially on nights like this with the standard local bores James always found room to invite. There were twelve of them in total, all speckled along the big teak table located in the garden of your countryside home. A table hastily dressed up with a white and red tablecloth and sprinkled with good wine and lousy conversation. Clustered under the rustle of the sycamore tree, its angular leaves propelling their way down onto the table as James spoke. The perfect spot for a English summer dinner party like this.

‘So we make the best of it, of course we do. B naturally got stuck right in.’ He’d always called you B, right from the very first day he met you. Never Bella. You often wondered if it was because he didn’t like your name. Was embarrassed by it even, especially compared to his all-English, King name. Your early insecurities had asked if it was too common, too estate. You were christened Bella, not Isabella after all. The difference mattered. But then your daughter was born and together you chose to name her Helen, yet he called her H from day one and that eased your worries. You soon learned many of his friends did it too. Nickname hungry the lot of them, though not for the people they truly respected.

‘We were swimming every day, eating fine Greek cuisine including one joint that I can’t recommend enough. Worth the air fare alone. A rustic charm to it, yet the food was top notch. Fantastic even.’ To everyone at the table it was another dreamy trip for the picture-perfect family. The happy Halls with their smiling Christmas cards and summer dinner parties. Only H and you know that it was a trip to save your marriage. A second honeymoon of sorts to try and halt the spiralling you were on. The fact that James would even share a story from such a private, vulnerable moment spoke volumes to the different places you were in.

‘In the evening the queue could go on for miles so you’d just put your name down, wander down beach side with a glass of vino to hand, and then wait for your name to be called. I finally finished Ulysses whilst waiting to be served at that restaurant, but boy was it worth it. Not Ulysses that is, an overlong mess of a novel. Don’t understand the hype.’ The guests smiled merrily again yet James hid one of his own that you knew was blooming behind his lips. Such a performer there though that was another running thread among his friends. Not necessarily an arrogance but an outward facing confidence to thrive in any social surrounding. To always be so comfortable and in control. James was different to his friends on the inside though. Meek at his core, not that anyone really knew. Brightly patterned wallpaper covering the sodden cardboard underneath.

‘Anyway aside from the restaurant we spent the rest of our days zipping around the island on a little moped. Nearly crashed the bloody thing a few times. Uphill on windy roads with B loaded on the back is not what I call smooth sailing.’ Again the titters came, not even subtly at your expense. ‘A lot of the time though was spent on the beach relaxing with Joyce, though after the relief of finishing that I soon turned to B’s lite lit which I must say I far preferred.’ You blush when more laughs come because even though it’s a compliment of sorts, among this crowd it’s most definitely an insult.

‘Anyway I digress from the meat of the story. Where crap got real, so to speak.’ A hush descends and James takes a deep, controlled breath, relishing every second that you are hating. You knowing, dreading, what was to come. He craving it. ‘So every morning I go out across the mud and stone covered road and scramble down the dirt bank for a morning swim. Nothing like it. Front crawl slicing through the Aegean, not swimming much better than Aegeus with this growing belly mind you.’ More laughs at a joke that could only work amongst a certain type. James always did know his crowd, equally able to tone it all down when he was with your lot. A quality you treasured in him, something you still do. One of the few. ‘So this one morning I get up to go out. Quick espresso, a stretch out on the little deck and then I look at to sea. Out to the playground I’m about to dive into. And that’s when I see it. Bloody hard to miss.’

‘What James, what?’ asks Henrietta longingly. Henrietta with her horse face and English rose dresses who you’re eighty percent sure he’s having an affair with.

‘A boat, a big boat, half wrecked in the bay. Forty-five-degree angle, sort of just hanging there in the bob of the wave. It was one of the most utterly surreal sights that for a moment I couldn’t take it in. Just so far removed from our normal mornings you see. After a few beats, once I’ve gained my sense of self, I wander a bit closer. And that’s when I see the people. People everyone. Some on the boat, some in the water, some diving off the boat into the Aegean. Mainly men, but women and children are there too. And screaming. Screaming for what I quickly gathered was for help. Couldn’t quite believe it. Quick as a flash I run back to our spot and shake B from her slumber. Now B isn’t a morning person, never has been, never will be. She can count the sleep until the sun is setting, but this morning she’s up in a flash. Responds instantly to what I’ve seen. Wouldn’t expect anything less, social justice, warrior princess as she is.’

You laugh politely and the room smirks along. More compliments wrapped in digs and digs wrapped in compliments, but you’ll let him his moment for now. You’ve got no choice. ‘We both instantly run out to the beach, sprinting towards the boat. I’m kicking sand up in B’s face but she doesn’t care, only one thing on her mind. When we get there though we realise we have a problem. Well, multiple problems. By now I’d say roughly half of the boat is on-shore, mainly women and children left on board. But also on shore are the Greek police and let’s just say they’re not like our own bobbies. Ruthless, the lot of them.’ The table murmurs a nod of approval at this as if they’ve all come across the Greek police many a time when the reality is you don’t get any police out on the private yachts and private beaches that they frequent. You’re the only one at the table who’d think that mind. They’re just a nodding echo chamber and you have to sit and try and hold it all together.

‘So just as we’re arriving at this group of refugees, and that’s who they are by the way, if that part wasn’t clear. Refugees the lot of them. Desperate, stranded, alone.’

‘Tragic, absolutely tragic,’ replies Flora Thompson, who you know for a fact has voted Tory her entire life.

‘But alas that’s when the police intervene. The beach is just them, the refugees, us and a few watchers from afar. Turns out the local Greeks themselves don’t get involved in these matters because the police can come down hard. Easier when you’re a tourist and a white one at that. White privilege is what it is, though for once in our life we could use it for some good.’

‘Hear, hear,’ mutters Ron, another port drinking Tory voter.

‘So this policeman. Big guy, broad shoulders, far broader than me.’ Queue another self-deprecating laugh that conjures up a table of real laughs. ‘He throws one palm up in our face and says, go home. Naturally B isn’t having any of it, so she carries on towards the group crashed out on the shore. The policeman isn’t having any of that though either. Literally grabs her and swings her back to me and repeats, go home. Dumbfounded, we’re not really sure how to respond. Then more police begin to circulate and so that’s when we retreat. To regroup so to speak.’

‘Quite astonishing,’ Ron continues, though he looks like he’s more focussed on the port than he is the story. James doesn’t care though, he’s in full flow, the words rolling off his lips.

‘So we stand under the shade of a particularly barren tree, the sun starting to thrash down, and try and form a plan. Meanwhile more and more people are streaming off the boat to shore whilst some swim back to the boat to help the women and children. I’m all ready to swim out too and lend a hand.’ He lets the self-deprecation act slip for a moment into all out bravado. Nothing is lost however as it only draws admiring, doting stares from both Flora and Henrietta.

‘But that’s when B has a thought. She tells me to wait then quickly scampers off back to the room and I’m left there on my tod just observing it all. This sad boat swaying in the water framed by the high white cliffs circling above. And then I start to think what these poor people must have gone through just to be there. It’s a lot to take in.’ He takes a long, calculated breath that sucks in more fawning eyes. ‘Over time I notice one of them seems to be the ringleader of sorts, communicating with the police and with his fellow refugees. A friendly chap with soft features and a tight beard. Anyway that’s when B returns with a slip of paper in her hand and her mobile phone. It’s go time. She immediately starts snapping away, getting everything she can from the shadows where we’re somewhat hidden. A right old Maria Colvin in our presence.’ More laughs and you fake a laugh to join them cause what else can you do.

‘Imagine if you were caught,’ now exclaims Flora. Always scared that Flo, even for an event she knows has passed and we’re clearly perfectly fine from. One of the many reasons why you never connected as friends.

‘Imagine indeed. Luckily of course in that moment we weren’t, though I’ll come to that. So after B’s got all her snaps, we notice all the police have wandered off to congregate under some shade by the car park. Sensing an opportunity we stealthily make our way across the beach, my toes directing us towards this ring leader of the pack. We reach him and I take a glance back at the police and for a few seconds at least, we’re in the clear.’ You hear gasps from the table and can only imagine the new smile James is now suppressing. It’s the opposite of where you’re at. Uncomfortable right down to your stomach for this story even to be told. Doesn’t feel like it should be shared, drawing admiration at others suffering. Suffering that hasn’t ended and will only continue on and on with more people just like them. It’s similar to how you feel about all those true-crime dramas on the box. James just gobbles them up but you’re unable to watch, always thinking about the family on the other end. The ones sitting down to watch a money-making show about how they lost someone dear. And everyone just seems okay with that concept, like everyone is okay now.

Hello, I say, walking towards the man, both palms up. My white flag so to speak.’ He lifts both hands up in demonstration. ‘We’re here to help. The man turns towards me. With poise. Bear in mind we’ve got no idea if he speaks English at this point, so we all kind of lock in a trance. A few seconds pass and then he replies, my name is Hassan. We are many. We took a boat from Turkey, though I am from Syria. The drivers of the boats, they left us out at sea and. He’s about to continue but that’s when B points out the police are heading our way and at quite a clip. This is where she, my darling B, takes over. She pulls out the piece of paper and hands it straight to this Hassan and says, this is my number. If you have a phone or can get a phone then send me a message. We want to try and help. Hassan nods, understanding, then scrunches up the paper and shoves it in his pocket just as the police arrive.’

James takes a pause here and reaches for his red. Takes another slow slip and lets the tension of the story wash over his guests. His, not yours of course. You wonder what Hassan would say if he knew his life was being used like this. A tool for another man’s ego. Knowing Hassan as you now do, you doubt he’d probably care. Doesn’t make it right.

When you and James first got together people kept asking you what you saw in him considering the differences in your background. Gold digger others said, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything the family wealth was something that repelled you and took years to get your head round. No, what you saw in James was a great enthusiasm for life. A desire, a need, to truly live life day by day, making the most of each one. A firework constantly burning. Yet over time that waned. Not his raw enthusiasm, no, that never died. More your appreciation of it. He was just a big kid who never had to take life that seriously and so he didn’t. And that started to grate on you and at the same time your seriousness began to grate on him. No doubt from the start there was an element of pride when he married you, of making a point. A wife so different to all his friends who of course had settled for the norm. Here was James, weak old James, marrying Jenny from the Block or whatever it was the used to call you. By now that novelty had worn off though. By now common sense had returned and he had his gaze returned towards his backgrounds’ expected type.

‘You’re holding us on edge here James, out with it,’ yelps Ron, cutting into your thoughts, his red nose growing redder by the second.

James smiles graciously and then continues. ‘So the policeman shoves Hassan away. He stumbles a few tragic steps backwards before he falls into the sand. Worried he then anxiously retreats to his flock, crab-like across the sand. Then the policeman turns to me and grabs the phone in my hand. You take photos, he screams aggressively in my face as he yanks the phone away. Immediately he goes to my photos and starts looking through, panting under the heat of the Greek sun. A little bead of sweet tunnels down his forehead, a moment of silence reigns and then… he returns me the phone and just says, leave. Leave this beach now. Needing no more encouragement we make our exit and dart back to the shadows.’

‘But how? What about the photos?’ Henrietta squeals, panting almost orgasmically at his words and you’re ninety five percent sure they’re having an affair.

‘What indeed Hennie,’ James replies with a raised brow. ‘I deleted them all after taking them. Removed them from my photos, but he didn’t check my recycling bin did he. It was an educated gamble at best, but one that beautifully paid off.’

You can’t help but snort at his temerity. Temerity. That was a word you’d never heard until you married James. Didn’t use that kind of lingo down the block, but it’s perfect for now. The most outrageous part is that no one else notices what he’s done. The story clearly starts with you holding the phone and taking the photos, only now James is the one hiding them all in the recycling bin. When this supposed swap happened remains a mystery because it actually is a mystery, even to you. James’s stories always were better when he’s front and centre, or at least they are for him. You don’t really care, it’s just the cheek of it, the dismissiveness. You try to catch his eye but he very deliberately avoids it and carries on with his story. Not made of strong stuff, so the coward route is his only way.

’So what happened next?’ barks Ron.

‘Patience Ronny, patience. Let a man have a drink.’ More laughs as James takes another sip and then rows the story on. ‘So from the shadows we planned our next move. B was immediately on the internet and searching for who to contact and soon found the digits for a non-profit.’ At least he gave you that one. ‘I get on the blower and they paint the grim reality. Apparently the Greek police have a habit of sending these boats back out to sea to land on another island that isn’t their own. The only way to stop that is public pressure and this is where the safely-stored photos come in. We’re promptly carting them across the interweb and within a few moments they’re slap bang all over Twitter.’

‘How wonderful. How utterly wonderful. You hero you.’ Hero. Singular.

‘I’m so proud of you James.’ The train steams ahead and you swallow down your rosé with a deflated sigh. Biting your tongue at the depressing irony that Flora is in such praise when you saw her recent Facebook posts about boats coming across the channel.

‘I wouldn’t say that Flora. Just doing our bit. Anyone would do the same.’

‘Oh don’t be so modest James,’ now Henrietta jumps in and you’re now ninety nine percent sure they’re romping in the fields. Got to be happening and you’re surprised at how little you care. In fact it’s that thought that makes you most sad. This was a man who opened your horizons, who transformed your life, who gave you H and security and a curious love for cricket and Pimms. Yet here you are, barely caring when he tears you down in public followed by thrusting his tiny penis into Henrietta Wentworth of all people. Life comes at you fast. ‘So what happened next?’

Now James pauses as if mulling over her question when you know he’s just been counting down the seconds till someone asked. His well-oiled answer polished long in advance of the night.

‘We waited. Simply that. Waited to see what would happen. For a few hours we stayed on the beach, unable to leave the boat, scared that they might be sent back. There was a little bar on the beach and we’d made friends with a local young Greek chap, so we moseyed on over there to get his two cents. His basic summary, once we’d debriefed everything, was to make ourselves scarce. He was clearly worried about the Greek police now the photos were live and felt we should be too. So after a quick frappe, we did exactly that. Got on the moto and jetted off to a different beach to idle away the day. It’s hard to get into a book while this is hanging there mind you, so we basically just sat and waited in silence.’

Maybe that lie was for Henrietta’s benefit because there was nothing silent about that wait. The opposite in fact. It was as if the whole event had briefly charged up your relationship and you were back to being twenty years old again. There was nothing silent about your moans and his grunts as you had the steamiest sex you can remember in a long while. The only silence was after, when you both lay amongst the white sheets of your bed, the curtained door flapping in the breeze, and a guilt fell over you. A shame for finding pleasure that morning when so many others were in such distress. James’s clearly felt it too, for once on the same page. It was the same guilt that reared its head every time you heard James tell this story, only his was now long gone.

‘Then it happened. Ping, the mobile phone went. Ping. I ran to it in a flash as a number I didn’t recognise popped up. Hassan was in touch.’ A gasp from Florence, a hand to the horse mouth from Henrietta, an astonished snort from Ron. ‘Over the ensuing hours, with Google Translate lending a hand, we slowly got his story. As said, they’d come from Turkey though he was Syrian. Apparently he had two boys in Italy and was heading that way. The boat was on course, then a storm hit and that’s how they ended up in Milos. Even before the journey began the vessel was in no fit state, but after the winds started howling it turned into the wreck we witnessed. The charlatans driving the thing gaily jumped ship and all the passengers were left for Mother Nature to decide their fate. Hassan said the ship’s captain was a big man, always wearing a pair of bright red sunglasses with a mop of curly brown hair sprouting out above. The whole thing had all been planned in advance, a little escape boat coming to pick up Mr Red Sunglasses and his crew mate before it sunk. Disgusting all round really.’

‘Astonishing,’ Ron remarks, before taking a huge slice of stilton and clamping it between his jaw. Little crumbled dashes of blue and yellow finding a home in his bushy moustache.

‘So what happened next?’ Flora now crows, ever the dutiful servant to your husband’s ego.

James takes a measured sigh before he continues. ‘For the immediate ensuing period, not bloody much. Hassan gave us his location and so we scooted over to a little encampment the police had set up at a neighbouring area. Conveniently right next to our favourite restaurant, so needless to say we were back in there.’ You cringe but you needn’t have bothered. The distastefulness of the action was lost on everyone else. ‘Then we just sort of waited around. Tried to read, tried to swim and tried to get to Hassan. Any time we came close though, a policeman would soon appear and bark us away. We did see him once however and shared a solitary wave through the bars of their makeshift prison. After that the holiday was a bit of a damp squib. We took one tour to this darling snorkelling area but instead of enjoy it, we spent the whole time talking to the guide about what had happened. Not the first time he’d seen it. Had a lot of choice words for Mr Red Sunglasses and his ilk. Apparently they do this all the time. Barbarians he called them and I’m inclined to agree. I mean what kind of person could do that? Leaving these innocents, women and children even, out at sea to die. That was a thought that wouldn’t leave me. Kept me up at night, stewing over their behaviour. Just not cricket.’

‘No it’s not!’ Florence shouts with a curious force. Again the Facebook post comes to mind but you’re too done with the whole story to even contemplate pointing that out now. ‘And so that was that?’

‘Not quite.’ Now James smiles, his biggest of the night, and your toes can’t help but curl at the thought of what is to come. You can’t understand why he does this to himself but these days there’s a lot you can’t understand. Oh James, you weasel of a man, who have you become? Or maybe he was always this way and you were just too lost in the fog of love to see it.

‘So we try and help Hassan, do what we can. Got in touch with a few lawyer friends but Hassan isn’t really keen. Scared of lawyers which makes sense considering. Seems he wants to fly solo on this one and chance his luck to Italy. He still wants the emotional support and I’m there for him, zipping messages back and forth.’ Again this was you, relaying everything back to James, but you’re tired of even acknowledging that internally now. Just makes it worse. ‘Then one day, the day before we leave, he goes silent. Battery dead. Gone. Finito.’

‘Oh my James, that must have been terrible.’ Henrietta exclaims as she plants a hand on his shoulder and gives him a quick rub. No doubting it anymore, not even hiding it.

‘It was a real shock. We went back to the site a few times but the police presence had grown by now so no chance for any more waving. I just wanted some confirmation you know, something to let on that he was okay, but nothing. Again a strange limbo took place and we sort of just prepared ourselves for the end of our trip. By now we’re almost counting down the hours because the whole place feels somewhat eerie now. Disturbing even.’

‘Can only imagine. What a remarkable story.’ Your noses scrunches once again at Florence’s latest remark and it only tightens when James storms back in. The man you once adored, the man you would do anything for, now this pathetic shell living off your actions and then some. A narcissist of the highest order and you’re embarrassed that you didn’t see it earlier.

‘We’re not done yet Flo. No, on the final day there was another twist.’ Here he goes. He’s doing it and you almost get up to leave. To stand and walk out the room because you can’t do this. You can’t listen to what he’s about to say but if you do leave then this moment will just happen at the next social occasion and the one after that and the one after that and that recurring nightmare is the small thought keeps you in your chair. The chance for a reordering of the truth that only you can deliver. One you almost need to deliver for your sense of self, for your sense of being. For you being you and remembering that to the end. And so you take a deep breath, stay glued to your chair and wait.

‘On our final day we’re milling about in prep for our ferry. It’s delayed naturally, typical Greeks, so we’ve got a few hours to kill. We start rambling our way down the side streets, popping in and out of the shops. B wanders her way into one, eyeing up some pretty ghastly summer dresses. I can’t be dealing with that and so I saunter on and take a pew on a bench outside the shop. I’m sitting there, scrolling through the rugby scores, and that’s when I see him.’

A collective silence takes hold of the room until Florence breaks it. ‘See who James, see who? Hassan?’

James chuckles to himself, swinging his head from guest to guest. ‘Oh no, not Hassan. No, it was Mr Red Sunglasses and curly mop of hair himself. Completely recognisable. Could only be him.’

A gasp takes over the table and it’s unbearable. Horrible even, although not for James who is clearly elated at every reaction facing him. You remember the first time he told you this story. How he broke into the shop where you were with a nervous energy, completely out of breath, to relay to you what had just happened. His eyes almost glazed over, intoxicated. The words spewing out in an uncontrollable barrage.

‘For a moment I was speechless. I just couldn’t believe it. My heart began to pound in its cage, the drums of the Vikings roaring against my ribs. Then I realised it was time to act. I had to, there was no other way. I rose from my bench slowly and started walking towards him. It was just the two of us down this side alley, a little corridor of beauty I might add. Cobbled stones beneath my feet, little blue shuttered windows around me, Zeus no doubt smiling down from above. Then I made my move. You sir, you. Slowly, very slowly, he turned to face me. What do you want? Now my courage bloomed and I stood tall. I know you, I said. I know what you’ve done. A smuggler. Leaving those poor people to die. Well you should have seen the expression that took over his face. Pure bewilderment for a dash, before composure took over. I don’t know what you’re talking about, his voice deep and low. The croak of a man who’s smoked a million ciggies. Oh but you do señor. And that’s when he knew. He knew I knew and he knew that I was about to kick up a fuss. And that’s precisely when then we moved from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. Quickly I reached for my phone, though in hindsight I maybe should have done that from the start. Emotion had got the better of me.’ The grip James now had on the room was impressive. Awe, shock and wonder on all their faces.

‘Seeing the phone he starts to panic and so makes a go at me. Dives forward for the phone, but luckily I’m ready for him. Light on my feet I skip to the side and that’s when my years of ruggers comes into play. I drop low and hit him with a tackle from the side. Right into his shins my shoulder gets him and down the Jenga pieces fall. Then it’s man to man on the floor and an all out scramble begins.’ Fingers are over your eyes now, unable to watch, unable to listen. Just like H used to when you would embarrass her. H whose existence if it wasn’t for, you’d be furious at all these years wasted on such a pathetic individual. ‘He’s holding me down, then me him. Back and forth, a dance of titans.’ All self-deprecation now lost long ago. ‘For a moment I think I’ve got him. I really do, pinned down and merciless below me. But no, Icarus sadly flew too high and did not notice the knife he slid out from his lower trouser pocket. In a flash it was to my neck and the struggle immediately ceased and we’re just two bodies panting on the cobblestone floor.’ More gasps, more astonishment, Henrietta’s fingers dancing down the nape of his neck.

‘Slowly I raise both hands up in peace, put them behind my head and lift from the position I was in on top of him. Mr Red Sunglasses laughs at me, laughs loudly, as if he’s won. No awareness or humility of the cheating techniques that led him there. I stand and back off. One step, two steps. Then he stands too and rises up before me, before he starts to back off down the street behind, still facing me mind you, the knife pointed at my chest. Once he’s ten or so paces away he turns and bolts, running his way down alleys and I’m left panting alone in the street.’

‘My god James old boy,’ Ron says, his attention for once with the story. ‘Very well played indeed. Didn’t know you had it in you.’ And that’s probably the truest thing been said at the table all night. Because James doesn’t have it in him. Even when you loved him beyond belief, he never had it in him. He was always a coward. Proud to call you his wife but uncomfortable to walk the roads you once called home. Squirming his way down them, clinging to you for comfort. The story truly is unbelievable because it literally is, but none of the others see it.

‘Oh James, how brave of you. How very, very brave.’ Henrietta moves closer to him then remembers where she is, darts you a guilty glance and falls back into her seat. Saving her kisses for later or tomorrow or the next work trip or whenever it is they meet.

‘Just doing what needed to be done. Couldn’t have not.’

And this is your moment. You can’t take it anymore, it’s all too nauseating. This is your chance to give James the justice he deserves. For all the humiliations thrown your way, not just this night but to all those others too. The put downs, the dismissiveness of any career. All the things he once rallied against when you were young to which he is now guilty. And not just to you but also to the poor people on the boat and their unwanted role as an ego pumper for this man they’ve never met. And for H and all the stories she has had to endure despite the distance he’s always shown her as a parent. This and that and that and this and god you could go on. Yes, this is your moment to strike. To say the truth out loud, but for some reason you can’t. You can’t bring yourself to say it loud. Maybe because you know the weight of the room is against you, or maybe because you’re still scared of what it will mean like you have been ever since it happened. And you start to sweat, realising that the moment is fading right in front of your fingertips and you may never get it again. But it’s in that moment when James catches your eye. It’s a quick look, a sly one, but how grateful you are that he did, because now you can take his eye. It finally gives you the opportunity and your strength roars into life, remembering the person you are. The person you sort of forgot. So when your eyes meet you look at him, stare deep down into his small, timid soul and you raise your eyebrows high and you laugh. A quiet laugh but a laugh all the same. For a second he looks confused and then slowly it dawns on him. Dawns on him that you know, and even if you don’t let everyone else know, he now knows you know. Like you did the last time he told this story and the time before that, but this time at least you’re letting him know and oh how he does. You see it in the way his pupils shrink, how his brow begins to sweat, how his fingers start to play with each other and how his right ear starts to twitch, which is exactly what H does when she’s nervous. And in that moment you finally feel happy. Like some justice has been delivered.

Because you know the truth about that day he ran into the shop to find you looking at Greek literature, not ghastly sundresses as he said, and told you his story in panting breath. About the man in the red sunglasses and the fight and the knife. He now knows that you saw exactly what happened even though you’ve never told him. Endured it till now, at first because you were so shocked by what he was saying that you couldn’t quite believe it. And then because you almost couldn’t say it out loud because the second you did you knew it would shatter your whole relationship. There would be no getting over that. It would be impossible. His whole facade of masculinity would be destroyed in a moment and knowing James, knowing the true man he was, there would be no moving forward. And for a long time you couldn’t do that. You still held out that tiny little bit of hope even though mentally you’d clocked out of the marriage a long time ago. It was only human but now a line had been crossed. You’ve heard this story too many times and so finally, with a small look, you’ve let him know that when you were in that shop reading a blurb on a book about Plato, through the window the same man in red sunglasses caught your eye too. Completely recognisable as James had said, that part was true. And then you watched as James saw him. Watched as you saw your husbands’ face calculated what to do. And watched and watched as James withered back into his seat like a delicate little petal in a winter’s storm, his right ear twitching. And that’s all that happened. That was literally it. No confrontation, no rugby tackle, no fight, no knife, no bolt down the alleyways, even no thought to call the police. Instead you watched James, sat on the bench, panting uncomfortably in the shade. For five minutes he sat there, the man in red sunglasses long gone. Then he stood up, brushed himself down and ran to find you in the shop to tell you his story. And that was that. That was James’s way.

Part of your heart bled when he told you. A realisation that this is what James wished he had done, what he hoped of himself. What he would and should have done. And so he built up a tale instead. To imagine the man he could be and he then decided to tell it to anyone and everyone. Gone was the self-deprecation and instead it was a complete self-mutilation and it was horrifying to watch. But by now it had gone too far and that’s why you gave the look and with that the walls of your marriage would crash down. But you can accept that now and can even admire the way you did it. Not publicly, not brazen or aggressive but in a subtle, sly, cutting way. Just like James taught you.



Ben Davies

Ben Davies is a writer based in California. Originally from the UK, Ben has had fiction published or forthcoming in LeftBrain Media, Downtime Review, MiniMag, Firework Stories & Short Story Me, with articles published in magazines including Huck, Lost and The International Times. He is currently finishing a short story collection, And So I Took Their Eye and debut novel, A Question of England.  Ben recommends Alarm Phone.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Wednesday, January 24, 2024 - 22:01