The clack of pool balls colliding held an inconstant, unnerving rhythm. The quiet murmurs of conversation from across the room, and as muted as it all was, she struggled not to flinch. He sat across from her, raised the tumbler to his lips and took a long, slow sip.
‘Please,’ she said.
He lowered the glass. His silences hurt more than his anger had. A shout was something tangible, she could avoid it if she needed to or endure it. He had never raised his hand to her. She wondered if would’ve felt like some measure of passion for her. It was a perverse, ugly thought that stayed with her into the night, the way indigestion followed too rich a meal.
‘Jo. Look, I don’t know what it was that I did, but we -‘
She used to implore him to share with her, but now it was his pleading and she recoiled to hear it. This was a justice that did not anaesthetize her to the anguish of it though. She had imagined that the ending would bring relief. The cool act of laying the folded piece of paper on the table in front of him at a breakfast that had been reduced to smears of butter and drifts of breadcrumbs. Him unfolding the paper with a befuddled grin.
She had watched his smile die on his face. It was strangled by the legalese of the letter and her lack of reaction to it. And here she was again. Her second attempt to get him to sign and allow them both to move them.
She said both, but she did not mean it. Not really.
‘It wasn’t you, Paul. It was me.’
When sleep evaded her in her new bed, when it had lost her address and was too stubborn to ask for it. She was free to admit it. It was her, yes, but it was more her turning forty that had been the catalyst. Turning forty with him and his budding potbelly, his legs that used to be lean, now emaciated and roped with veins that made her sick. She would wake up in the night, reach for his warm, inert weight and find herself conflicted between relief and regret that he was not there.
‘You’ve not even given me a chance to change.’
He pouted his lower lip. He was a little too jowly to make that little boy lost expression work for him anymore. She had hoped to be civil, so that she could look back and make other people feel better about her actions. He did not give her anger or recrimination, and it was too painful to deal with politely. Some small part of her hoped for a resurgence of feeling to come to either of them. A bearskin rug rather than a folded napkin.
‘I don’t want you to change. I want you to sign the nisi. Please.’
He shook his head and picked up his glass. His eyebrows knotted with consternation and he gestured towards her.
‘I mean, you won’t even drink with me. For fucks sake, all this time and you won’t even have one drink with me.’
She bit back a sob, hid it beneath a mask of perfect indifference. He could have seen this coming, when it was simple weariness and done something about it. There were so many things that he might have done, visible as the stars on a summer night and just as far away. She had such hopes for things being easy, the shine of civilisation rather than the glint of streetlight on broken glass.
‘I don’t want a drink. I made that clear when I called you. I want you to sign the nisi please.’
He swallowed the last of the bourbon.
‘At least have one drink with me. Come on, you owe me that much.’
She grimaced at the mention of the word ‘owe’. She had a long list of grievances that she could wield with the skill of a sushi chef. Exhaustion rolled through her veins though, resigning herself to more diplomatic gestures. She agreed to one drink, like she were at gunpoint, reading before the hard gaze of a video camera. He turned and raised his hand, gesturing for the doughy bartender’s attention.
‘Johnny, another shot and a -‘
He turned and asked her what she was drinking.
He used to know. She told him and he ordered.
‘ Wait your fucking turn, mate.’ A voice boomed over from the pool table.
One of the guys playing pool. The butt of the cue on the floor between his feet, jaw stuck out and his lips curled back over teeth, which looked buttered in the poor light of the bar. She looked at the blue-black tattooing on his arms. The thick but poorly proportioned musculature and the vest that hung like a dirty bandage from his chest. She put her hand across the table, but Paul was still turned to the bar.
‘I didn’t hear you and neither did Johnny.’
His friend had joined him now, members of the same tribe, with his cue in his thick, blunt hands.
‘Yeah he did. I’m not deaf.’
Paul squared his shoulders and without seeing it, she knew the expression that he would give. He mistook histrionics for confidence all too often, and here it was.
‘Well I’ve ordered and I don’t see him pouring two pints of whatever rat piss you’re drinking so wait your bloody turn.’
The lenses of the bartender’s spectacles had caught the light and she could not see his eyes, but the corners of his mouth had fallen as he glanced between Paul and the pool table.
‘I’d just gotten some glasses, mate. Won’t be long.’
Paul got to his feet.
‘Paul, please just sit down, you’re being ridiculous.’
Marriage prepared some women for motherhood. Jo had oftentimes gone shopping and heard women use the same tone to address their partners as they did their children. Paul stood up and pointed to the two men by the pool table. She watched him with appalled fascination, her heart pounding in her chest and her palms damp with what she tried to deny was a frangible excitement. His anger was seldom, and the surprise sent a bolt of intrigue through her. She was alert to him, but hid it beneath the cloak of anxiety she had worn so often, that she forgot to take it off.
‘Well I didn’t fucking hear you and I want a double jack daniels and a soda with lime.’
One of the young men said something and they both laughed. Jo wanted to see, but Paul had blocked her line of sight. His hunched shoulders and clenched fists were a sign that he had taken umbrage.
‘Paul, please just sit down. You’re making a scene.’
He jabbed his index finger in their direction.
‘Don’t fucking laugh at me.’
The man with the big hands had stepped forward. Jo had to lean to her right to see, but she noticed the vulpine grin on his face. She remembered the maxim about how the devil made work for idle hands, but that was ridiculous. He wanted people to do things, in her opinion, small crude actions that exploded into ugliness and injury.
‘Ha fucking ha. Now we’re going to get our drinks, then you get yours.’
His friend swung the cue forward, a mocking arc that he imagined looked like a deleted scene in a kung fu movie but came over as irritated and petulant.
‘Stop being a fucking baby about it.’
Paul strode over before she could implore him, his hands bunched into fists and his posture screaming his inexperience. His legs were pumping and he was too adrenaline-blind to see the cues being readied to hit something other than billiards.
They were younger, and therefore faster than him. Educated by too many bad action movies and encouraged by pride and bourbon, he was easy meat for the sweep of the cues. Then he was fetal, weeping against the sharp whack of the sticks against his thighs and midsection. Jo was out of her chair, but they grew bored in an instant and tossed them down. The larger of the pair gave a desultory swing of his boot into Paul’s stomach before they walked past them and left.
She dropped into a crouch and splayed her fingers, appalled and compelled to touch him. Crying without inhibition, he rolls away as she tries to comfort him. His spectacles were at an angle away from his face and she saw the black shine of blood on his hands. She shushed him and began to stroke his hair. She kept telling him that it would all be okay. He had risked himself for something dumb and came off the worse for it.
She smiled as she did it and when she caught sight of her reflection in the large, smeared mirror, she wondered why she looked so happy.
‘It’s okay, baby, it’s okay. I’m here.’
She helped him to his feet, one thick arm around the back of her neck and he grimaced. His palm was flat against his ribs on the right side. He wore a goatee of blood from where a kick had broken his nose. He limps and each breath brings another gasp of pain. Together, they stagger outside and shove the door open.
The day was bright, and they both wince against the harsh glare of the sunshine. Jo thought about the nisi left on the table, their last drink unordered and turned to look at Paul. His face painted with his own blood, knotted into a mask of stoic agony and the cloud of alcohol fumes coming from his pores. She was surprised, not by his weight against her, but how used she had been to it.
How she had missed it.