Read by Nicholas Delvalle
Max rented a large apartment on the top two floors of a house on Warwick Square. He used to own a car, a silver Porsche, which he parked in the space right outside the flat, a space he considered his. When the basement flat had taken to parking there, a battered VW with crisp packets and empty juice cartons scattering the back, he had played it cool, bided his time. He could tell they were disorganised, scatty types. They had three kids under four and who in their right mind does that? So he waited until the resident’s permit in the windscreen had run down and then reported it to the council, right on the expiry date. It had been towed within the hour.
Max bumped into the woman from the basement flat, their eighteen-month-old on her hip, the baby strapped to her chest and the three-year-old dangling off her arm, just as she emerged up the stairs and discovered the disappearance of her car. Max had empathised, soothed. He’d come up with the suggestion, maybe it’s at the pound? Yes, why not use his phone? He couldn’t wait long though, he had a meeting to run to. As soon as she’d gone, Max had jumped in the Porsche and driven it twice around the block before parking it back where it belonged.
He didn’t own the Porsche any more. After he’d accrued one too many speeding points, his licence had been suspended and he’d been sent on one of those speed awareness courses. He had seen the light, he’d sold the Porsche. He lectured anyone and everyone now about the evils of speed.
“Listen, I never thought I’d say it, but we should all do without cars.”
“Just because you can’t control yourself,” his sister Margot sighed, “you think we should all completely change our lives.”
“You should see what speed does to the human body. On impact. Completely crushes it.”
“You don’t have to do the school run.”
“Take the bus. Kids love buses.”
Max loved buses. Or at least he said he did. He kept meaning to take a bus. He had even downloaded one of those apps that tells you when the next bus will come, but he’d get bored waiting for it to load and end up hailing a cab. It wasn’t his fault. He’d been born impatient. Some people could do things like waiting for buses, but it turned out it wasn’t really him.
Max had gone organic. And vegetarian. “I’m vegetarian,” said his online dating profile. “But I do make exceptions for fillet steak, lobster and sea bass.” He hadn’t had many hits from vegetarians, except for one vegan woman who had wanted to take him on as a project. Max thought being a project might be fun until he realised what veganism was. The vegan woman made no exceptions, not for fillet steak, not even for cheese. He’d changed his profile. “I love to cook,” it said now, “I guess I’m a real foodie at heart.”
“I can’t believe how similar we are,” said Jess. This was date number two, at a gastropub near the South Bank. This was Max’s idea. ‘Near the South Bank’ suggested artsy and interesting without actually having to do anything dull and cultural. “You love food, I love food. You love kids, I love kids.”
He did? Max had two nieces, whom he avoided. Margot always invited him for dinner at 7pm. “Then you’ll be around for bedtime. The girls would love to see you.” Max never arrived at Margot’s before 8.30pm. “So sorry,” he’d say, pouring himself a glass of wine. “Did I miss bedtime? Did I miss the girls? I can’t believe it.”
“That’s interesting,” he said.
“It’s so interesting,” said Jess.
“I mean, how did you get that, from my profile? I mean, the kid thing?”
“Oh that cute photo!” she said, “the beautiful blonde baby. I mean, whose is that? So adorable!”
The hits on Max’s online profile had suffered a slump in recent months. He’d taken to looking at the profiles of other men in his age group, to see what they were doing that he wasn’t. They all had pictures of themselves with kids. “I dote on my nieces,” they’d say. “My best day out? Playing dinosaurs with my nephew.” It was sick. They were all liars. If they wanted competition though, Max knew how to do that. He might not be awash with pictures of himself with the nieces. But he did have a good shot of himself with a baby. It was taken when he’d lent the woman from the basement his phone to call the car pound. She’d asked him to hold the eighteen-month-old while she made the call, and then because mothers have a deranged view of how cute their babies look with other people, she’d taken a picture for him on his phone. This was now his profile picture.
Jess liked it so much that she came back to Warwick Square and spent the night. This was his first second date conquest in fourteen and a half months. Max felt brilliant. He felt even more brilliant in the morning when Jess cooked him a full English. He was glad he had taken the precaution of stocking the fridge to burnish his foodie credentials. What’s more she spent the whole time apologising.
“I know it’s so much worse than anything you’d do,” she said.
Max felt he had no choice but to play along. “I’d just crisp up the bacon a little more,” he said. “But otherwise you really cracked it.”
Disaster struck the next day, when Jess appeared at his front door with a buggy. He’d seen her from the window and was going to ignore the intercom, but then the woman from the basement appeared with the blonde child and he felt there was too much at risk for him not to intervene. On the doorstep, Jess was crying.
“I’m so sorry to do this, I know it’s only been two dates,” she said. “But look, I know you’re a great guy and I’ve got a job interview today and my childminder is sick. I just thought … could you look after Georgie?”
Her eyes were wide and wet with tears, and Max realised that it was a choice, here and now, he either said yes or it was over with Jess, the non-vegetarian who came back after two dates and cooked a mean English, or at least next time she would, once she got the bacon right. He looked at Georgie who kicked and blew a raspberry.
“Sure,” said Max. “Hey little buddy. Do you like dinosaurs?”
“Tyrannosaurus Rex,” said Georgie.
“He’s my kind of guy,” said Max to Jess.
“Bless you,” said Jess, and kissed him with a passion he had not been kissed with in a long time. “Bye bye Georgie, be good,” she said. And she was gone.
Max decided that his neutral carpets and Scandinavian furniture could do without Georgie’s touch.
“Let’s go for a walk, hey, Georgie?” he said. Georgie looked unmoved. He was slumped in the buggy with his fist in his mouth like a drunk. Max wasn’t at all sure that the gin-in-the-milk thing had died out with the Victorians, like people said. “Or maybe a bus?” he said.
Max sat at a bus stop with Georgie in his buggy and browsed the online dating site on his phone. All the new profiles were vegetarians. A bus drew up, unforecast by his app, and the opening of the doors sounded like a Schweppes ad.
“Let’s get on,” said Max, pushing Georgie through the doors. The doors Schwepped closed again.
On the bus, Georgie screamed, wept and laughed, doing nothing to dispel the drunk theory. Max found a packet of Organix rice cakes under the buggy and they kept him quiet for a while even though they smelled of horse fodder. Fuelled by the rice cakes Georgie made a lunge for Max’s phone making him hit send on an unfinished IM to one of the vegetarians.
“No buddy, grown up toy,” said Max, silencing the phone and cramming it in his back pocket. A woman came and sat next to them with a little girl and read a story. Georgie roared, presumably at the imbecilic plot, but Max found it quite relaxing.
“Bus is terminating here, everybody off,” said the driver. Max blinked. How far had they come?
“Where are we?”
“Royal Free Hospital,” said the driver, “Hampstead.”
Max looked at Georgie, who had gone all red and puffy. His face was scrunched with some sort of effort and a stench was rising from him. “Oh God Georgie,” he said.
In A&E, the triage nurse was unsympathetic.
“There’s nothing actually wrong with him, is there?” she said.
“That depends on how you define ‘wrong’,” said Max, deploying the winking smile he had been developing for the vegetarians. Perhaps the nurse was a vegetarian? She folded her arms, checked her watch. “Look at him,” said Max, “does he look right to you?”
Georgie yawned. His red colour had lessened somewhat. This was unfortunate.
“There’s a baby change next to the toilets,” said the nurse. “And I don’t even know why I’m letting you use that. This is a hospital, not a public convenience.”
Max wasn’t going to shut himself in a small room on his own with Georgie. He’d never shut himself in a confined space with anyone so physically volatile. A bus ride was one thing but this was all going a bit too far.
“Come on Georgie,” he said, “let’s get an Uber.”
Max was waiting outside Margot’s house at 3pm.
“What the hell have you got there?” she said.
“This is Georgie,” said Max.
“He stinks,” said niece number one. The nieces were both wearing pink ballet outfits and were smeared with pink all over their faces from some disgusting lollipop they were eating.
“Seriously Margot I can’t believe you let them eat that crap.”
“Want sweeties,” cried Georgie, wrestling with the buggy straps.
“Seriously Max I can’t believe you haven’t changed him. Nancy’s right. He really does stink.”
“Can you do it?”
“No, Max! Who the hell is he anyway?”
“Hell hell hell!” chanted Georgie.
“Is that your phone?” said Margot.
“Oh god,” said Max. The phone was buzzing ferociously in his pocket. He pulled it out. Nineteen missed calls. From Jess. He put the phone to his ear.
Jess arrived in a police car, which blared its sirens for effect at the corner and then stopped as it pulled in to the kerb. She jumped out and grabbed Georgie into her arms. The act was practically the same as mauling in Max’s view, he’d been on safari last year and seen lions do it. He wondered whether the policeman would intervene.
“Georgie thank goodness you’re safe. Where have you been?” she said.
“Hospital,” said Georgie. “Nee nar nee nar!”
“Oh god!” said Jess.
“There was no nee nar,” said Max, “it’s just he was in this state.”
“Seriously Max, you wanted the NHS to change his nappy?” said Margot. “You’re unbelievable.”
“You’re unbelievable Uncle Max,” said a pink niece.
“For god’s sake Max, it was a job interview,” said Jess. “It was only an hour. What were you thinking?”
“I took him on a bus,” said Max, numbly. “I thought he’d like a bus.”
(c) Lucy Smith, 2017
Lucy Smith lives in London and is a current participant on City University’s Novel Studio.
Nicholas Delvallé trained at Bristol Old Vic. Since leaving he’s toured Austria with Vienna’s English Theatre; performed in All’s Well that Ends Well & Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare’s Globe; played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet by Theatre Sotto Voce, understudied in the National Theatre’s production of A Small Family Business & most recently played Ferdinand/Antonio in The Tempest at the Southwark Playhouse.