Read by Alex Woodhall
Since Danny came out as gay six months ago his older sister Jane had shown more interest in spending him with him, like he was now a real person who could add some genuine value to her life. Danny felt their boundaries change almost overnight, as Jane shared more and more of her personal life with him. Her decision to dump Graham was just one of the things she shared.
“I feel I’ve tried everything,” she’d said.
“Tried everything after nine months?” Danny asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” Jane paused, pretending that his comment made her consider something then concluded, “he’s been leaving more and more of his stuff around the flat, and today he said he wants to move in. I think living together is one thing I don’t need to try with that boy.”
“You know it’s nice having you to talk to these days,” Jane replied, “it’s not that you say anything nice, but you do have a calming presence. I feel like you won’t judge me. It’s like when we were kids, you never judged me for the all the shit I pulled.”
Being almost five years younger, Danny didn’t know the full extent of all the things Jane did as a teenager, but he remembered an incident with the neighbour’s cat. He must have been almost ten and Jane was stuck in the house, grounded after whatever had happened. They were playing cards, when Danny asked, “Why did you burn the cat?”
“Because,” Jane put her cards down and cupped Danny’s head in her hands, “it feels good to do things that might be wrong but you know will be really, really fun. If you’d been there you’d have found it funny. Promise. You’ll understand what I mean when you’re older,” she’d said, winking at him.
As they’d spent more time together over the last six months Danny had seen more of this side of Jane’s character. Previously he’d thought she’d lost it, become more sensible, the way people do as they get older and buy property.
It was a Saturday afternoon in October, and Danny was staring at two screws protruding from the side of the pine bookcase in Jane’s flat. One went up, and the other down. He’d made that bookcase last summer with Graham, Jane’s ex-boyfriend. The flat had been fun back then; heady with the smell of takeaway pizza, MDF and temporary plans. Now it was full of the laughter and grunting of bored teenagers floating up from the Fantasy gaming store in the high street below.
Danny had agreed to wait in for Graham to collect his things. It wasn’t his ideal way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but Jane had pleaded with him.
“You know it will just be terrible if I’m there. Honestly, you don’t know what a mess Gra is in at the moment. I just don’t think I’ll help matters at all. Plus,” Jane had said to Danny, “he likes you. You two always got on.”
It’s true, Danny and Graham had always got on, but Danny wasn’t very good with people when they were emotional. He hated the thought of seeing Graham reduced to tears because he saw a bowl that reminded them of their first date, or some such rubbish. Some people embraced that sort of thing, but not Danny.
Rat a tat tat tat …rat rat, a tat tat. Graham used the usual knock on the door.
“Nice haircut,” Danny said, looking at Graham’s mousey hair swept over into a side-parting, falling just above his green eyes. Neatly trimmed at the sides, it revealed a receding hairline and a ring through the top of his ear. Both must always have been present, Danny thought, but not things he’d ever noticed.
“Ta very much,” Graham said entering the room, “my mum reckoned you shouldn’t have hair past your ears if you’re nearly 30 and I thought, for some reason, I’d take her advice and ask her to cut it off.”
Danny smiled at Graham. His long unwieldy curly hair was something that Jane had told Danny she’d initially found refreshing, but had gradually grown more and more frustrating. She said that it symbolised the passive side of his character, the side that would do anything he was told.
“You remember my mum is actually a hairdresser. I’ve not let myself go that much since the break-up that I let just anyone cut my hair,” Graham said smiling.
Danny smiled back, conscious that he was looking at Graham nervously, worrying in case he got upset or did something erratic.
“So, it’s all here then,” Graham said, tapping three cardboard boxes sealed with duct tape that were stacked up against the wall.
“Yep,” Danny nodded.
"And she wants me to have this too I assume?” Graham held up a half-empty bottle of Advokat that was left on top of the boxes.
“I guessssss soooo,” Danny said hesitantly.
“Well, fancy a tipple?” Graham said confidently. The garish yellow liquid sloshed around the bottle as he shook it.
“You know just because I’m gay, doesn’t mean all I do on a Saturday afternoon is sit around drinking sweet, brightly-coloured alcohol.”
“Come off it …that’s all you lot do,” Graham said, walking into the kitchen and taking out two small glass tumblers, “I mean what’s the point of turning gay if you can’t have afternoons like this?” Graham returned and offered a healthy glass of thick yellow liquor to Danny.
“You know we don’t tend to think of it as something you turn into these days. It’s not a slip road off the M20,” Danny said.
“Well you know what I mean,” Graham grabbed his glass and collapsed onto the sofa. Despite saying things like “you lot” and “turning gay”, Danny thought of Graham as one of the few people in his life who hadn’t acted differently around him since he came out.
“We got this at Jenny’s cocktail party,” Graham said holding up the bottle of Advokat, “everyone had been asked to bring a bottle, but people brought all this weird shit, so at the end of the night she wanted people to take it back with them. Course, you know what Jane’s like, she grabbed the weirdest combination of bottles and put them in a shopping trolley we found outside. She got inside the trolley and I pushed her home…”
Graham trailed off and stared into the distance. “We had some good times, but as my mate Paul says, there’s no doubt that Jane was a fucking pain in the arse half the time.”
Danny spluttered with laughter, just about catching the Advokat in his hand as it burst out his mouth.
“Steady fella,” Graham said.
“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting that,” Danny said, wiping the yellow liquid from his nose.
“You know I think Jane’s great, and I think we both know I was punching above my weight a little there. Plus, I’m sure she’s told you how I’ve tried calling her to get her to change her mind … but the thing is, I was chatting to my mate Paul about it, and he was reminding me what a pain she could be at times. She’s a very demanding person,” Graham sipped his Advokat and curled his lip, “I mean looking at that shelf just reminds me what a ball ache she could be. Jesus, remember putting that shit up?” Graham turned towards Danny.
Danny smiled back and sipped his drink.
“Anyway, how are things with you?”
Danny hated that question. He liked Graham and wanted to give him an honest answer. He felt empty but wasn’t sure why. He felt lost and lonely in a way that he hadn’t when everyone thought he was straight, and assumed he got laid every now and just didn’t want a girlfriend. Now, people thought he got laid all the time, or somehow embraced loneliness.
“Things are ok, same old,” Danny replied.
“No,” Danny snapped, “you?”
“No no nothing like that ... is Jane?” his voice went up a pitch as he poured out more Advokat.
Danny knew full well that Jane was embracing her new freedom, but it wouldn’t be a lie to say that she wasn’t seeing anyone.
“Sorry I shouldn’t be asking you,” Graham interrupted before Danny could think of a reply.
It was almost night-time now and the murmur of teenagers was shifting into men in pressed white shirts starting their night out on the town. One of those programmes where people send in home video mishaps was on the TV in the corner of the room with the sound turned low.
They sat in silence looking at the TV, thinking what to say next.
Danny felt Graham’s body juddering next to him. He was convinced Graham was crying so kept gaze fixed on the TV. A fat man in a Hawaiian shirt tripped over a plastic football and went face first into a paddling pool. Kids around him clapped with laughter.
Graham knelt down on the floor and placed his empty glass of Advokat on the coffee table. He was waving his hand up and down with his mouth closed. His face was bright red with laughter; yellow liquid was slowly seeping from his nose and on to the wooden floorboards.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh dear,” Graham said propping himself back up on to the sofa, “I just find those silences so awkward. I was thinking about how odd it is … us sitting here watching chubby kids fall down stairs, drinking Advokat,” Graham broke off and started to giggle again. “How did things turn out like this, Dan?”
“You’re a weird guy,” Danny said, chuckling, “no wonder my sister dumped you.”
It was almost ten by the time they finished up the bottle of Advokat and a bottle of rosé Danny found in the fridge. Danny helped Graham carry his boxes down the stairs to the front door, where he was going to wait for his taxi.
“No need to hang around here like my mum – get back in the flat and get on with your evening,” Graham said, raising his eyebrows upstairs.
“Well, there isn’t exactly much to get on with, but it feels kind of odd hanging out in the corridor with you,” Danny turned to walk back up to the flat.
“That’s a bit abrupt mate,” Graham said, grabbing Danny’s elbow, “I’m sure I’ll see you around but we might as well hug it out like it means something. It’s the end of something isn’t it?” Graham stared at Danny, holding his arms out straight like a zombie.
Danny slung his arms over Graham’s shoulder and around his waist. He felt the ball of Graham’s earring pressed against his temple. As he moved away, Danny felt their fingers clasp for the briefest of moments.
Surely that didn’t happen, he thought.
He walked back down the corridor. He thought about turning around, but trudged up the staircase instead. One, two, three, four steps.
He thought again about turning around. After all, it wasn’t like Jane or Graham were taking this thing too seriously. To them, it all seemed like a bit of fun, and it was fun to do things that felt wrong sometimes. Half the time, no harm is done, he thought.
So, he turned around.
These days Jane is married with twin baby boys, and last Danny heard Graham was married too. Perhaps he’ll tell Jane about it one day and they’ll all laugh it off, but it could be one of those things where you had to be there.
(c) Duncan Grimes, 2017
Duncan Grimes is a social researcher and aspiring short story writer. Burning the Cat is his first contribution to Liars’ League. He has completed creative writing courses at City, University of London, and is currently working on his first collection of short stories.
Alex Woodhall has worked in comedy for the last 15 years, on stage, TV and radio. He DJs extensively around the country in clubs, festivals and evil corporate events and is one half of The Coffin Dodgers' Disco at The Phoenix. Interests include floodlit horse-massage at Crystal Palace and Gardener's Question Time.