Fiction: Panto Season
By Robin Cantwell
He takes one bite from his overstuffed sandwich, and it all comes flooding back. The embarrassment. The shame. The disgust for each and every moment exhausted by the presence of this emotionally stunted sad sack. The familiar flash of anger for having wasted the best years of my life trying to fix He Who Could Not Be Fixed. The countless mornings spent listening to his Shakespearean monologues on the rigged systems of society that were conspiring against him; the soul-sapping evenings quietly masturbating beneath the sheets as he cried himself to sleep beside me.
I can barely understand him. He’s stuffed so much of that foul egg and mayo concoction into his mouth that his words have turned to drivel. I mean look at him. Cress in his teeth. Breadcrumbs in his beard, ready to feed the birds that must inevitably nest in it. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s doing it on purpose: his last-gasp, desperado attempt to lure me back with the bad hygiene that attracted me to him in the first place.
‘I’m okay, I guess.’
‘You’re looking well.’
‘Thanks. And you? All…good?’ I ask with a hopeful sigh.
‘Never better,’ he says with a loaded smirk. ‘Never. Better.’
I smile politely back, but my brain screams why. Why, oh why did I come? It’s not like he forced me. It was just a text. A simple, run-of-the-mill hey, just checking in. Four words that mean next to nothing without the timeworn tapestry of our relationship wrapped around them. But don’t kid yourself. He knew exactly what those four words signified. The starting gun to the big bang.
It was sixty days since the break-up when he sent it. The significance of that number would not have been lost on him. Day Sixty: the furthest I’d ever ventured without hearing from him or reaching out. You see, when you dump Nigel, you can’t just wheel out the guillotine. This kill is never clean. No, with Nigel, you need to be weaned off, slowly, until the drug’s out your system for good. And believe me, there had been many such attempted weans. I’d lost count of the pulled launch dates, the botched takeoffs, the panicked pressing of the ejector seat button that would parachute me back into his needy embrace. But this time felt different. I was finally leaving his atmosphere. I could feel the grip of gravity loosen. That’s right: Day Sixty was the day I began to hit escape velocity, that euphoric speed needed to slip the surly bonds of this slapstick charade, and never look back.
But every time I crept a little closer to that glorious event horizon, he would chart his course through the artic seas of exile and arrive at my doorstep holding a half-price bouquet and box of excuses. And I would always take him in. I would secretly liken him to a mad scientist, plotting away on his chalkboard, trying to solve the elusive equation that would somehow win me back. This time, it took him sixty days to crack the code, but crack it he did. And thus, after a couple of conservative moves trotted out across the WhatsApp chessboard, he sent it: The Text Of Unknown Dread, blinking like a magical mystery box above me in a game of Mariokart as I felt his red shell chase me down:
Look. Can we meet? There’s something I need to tell you…but best said in person x
Oh fuck you. How had I fallen for such an easy bait? In this textbook trigger of insecurity, I had practically moonwalked my way back through the past two months of archiving histories, deleting photos, muting message threads, landing square in the surrounds of his sickeningly straightforward checkmate. He knew this would tear through my insides, for I am the girl who goes looking for trouble on her touchscreen until she finds it. And so I had to come. Because I had to know.
That’s how I find myself sitting on the steps of The National Theatre for yet another summit, stewing in this self-sabotaging mire of resentment and anticipation on his hour off from rehearsal. But let me tell you, this is no romance we’re about to play out. It’s not sad enough to be a tragedy, not happily-ever-after enough to be a comedy. No. This? This, my friends, has farce written all over it.
‘Work going okay?’
‘It’s good,’ I answer cautiously, feeling him lead me into his minefield of passive aggressive
barbs at the mere mention of career progress.
‘It’s OK. You can tell me. I won’t, like, “react” or anything.’
But why do I still feel guilty? Why must I avoid detonating his self-esteem every time I get a promotion? It’s not my fault they always seem to collide with an audition he was laughed out the room for. This was our trademark opening joust: I keep my counsel while he prods at my ruthless climb up the King’s College career ladder, daring me to look down at him as his dreams of having a day job sink to the bottom of the sea - down in the depths where they belong.
‘Nigel, why are we here?’
‘Isn’t that your job to figure out?’ he sniggers, raising his hands to the heavens like Christ The Redeemer. I try to ignore the glob of dijon dangling from his ear, and solider on:
‘No,’ I snap, ‘Why are you and I here?’
‘Oh. That. Basically, I need to ask you a favour.’
He grabs his beaten-up laptop from his satchel and hands it to me. I open it, instinctively wanting to reach into my pocket and put on my gloves as I run my fingers along his crusty, semen-infested keys. I focus. Hmm. Staring back at me from the dull glare of his cracked screen is what looks dangerously like a spreadsheet. Is this…oh God, it can’t be…
‘I’ve been totting up some expenses from our relationship.’
‘Yeah. About two hundred quids’ worth. Ubers, Deliveroos, things that you don’t think add up. But they do, Alice. They really do.’
I was wrong. This isn’t a farce. This is fucking panto. Full-blown, pie-in-your-face panto.
‘What’s this column for?’
‘Rent?! Me staying at yours is now a chargeable offence?!’
‘It is if you leave in the middle of the night and tape a post-it note to my forehead.’
‘Oh come on, it wasn’t that bad.’
And just like that, he pulls it out his pocket, and recites:
‘Being your girlfriend was like being trapped under a giant squid.’
‘Okay, well how about I pay you back with the pay rise I’m about to get.’
‘Oh, I’ve heard all about your promotion.’
‘You’re stalking me now?’
This was it. The big reveal.
‘I’ve, er…been seeing someone, Alice.’
I gather myself, before forcing a smile.
‘I mean, that’s great. Really great.’
‘This is different to anything I’ve felt before. Alice, I think…I think this is it.’
The wave of deflation surprises me, since this is exactly the scenario I had prayed for a thousand times over. It had never occurred to me that he may have brought me here to announce his own escape velocity coming out party. Not that it was a competition. Perhaps I’ve grown too used to the comfort of his orbit, like a lonely satellite out of mind’s eyes but one that could be called back whenever needed. It was always his availability that turned me off. It’s also what kept me safe.
‘I’m genuinely happy for you. You deserve peace. Who is it, if you don’t mind me…?’
‘Well. That’s the problem.’
My teeth clench.
And just like that, the walls of Jericho come crashing down. Priya is my boss. Head of the Physics Department. Commander-in-chief of all my hopes and dreams. Nigel knows this, as I’m the one who introduced them last year. At the time I was showing him off…or come to think of it, maybe I was showing her off. Now it’s one bad word in her ear from her new beau and I’m fired. Cancelled from academia ’til the end of my days. Frankly, I’d rather he slept with my sister, finally putting pay to all those unwanted erections that stuck out his trousers every time they shared a bottle of wine on the couch.
As the rain begins to spit in the air, he suggests moving to the tapas bar round the corner, no doubt revelling in his victory while I quietly piece together that he clearly lied about ever having a rehearsal. I can’t be bothered to call him out on it, as there’s now something far greater at stake. The only thing I always cared more about than my love life, no matter how engrossing its narrative arcs or plot twists. The only thing I vowed I would never let him disrupt.
‘Are we going to be OK?’ he asks, patting me on the knee as he orders another round.
‘When it started?’
‘Over Christmas. We got chatting over a flask of mulled wine and -’
‘But that was when we were still together?’
Ah. Like a whizkid on Tetris, his pieces are all slotting effortlessly into place. This, my friends, is a double-headed missile. Not only is he seeing my boss, but he cheated on me with her too.
‘To be honest mate, I don’t give a toss,’ I laugh, knocking back a double shot of tequila and letting the beat of the music thrum through me.
‘Don’t be like that.’
He thinks about saying it, but pulls back just in time. I can feel his breath all over me, soured by the fumes of his plaque that have somehow burned through his lunch and are now bullying their way through the boos. For a moment, we lock eyes, searching for weaknesses in each other’s battle plans.
‘I love her, Alice. I can’t help it, but -’
‘Why are you trying to advertise your relationship to me? What is this. A game of this is what you could have won? Mate, I won the fucking jackpot. I got out.’
He downs his drink, slamming the shot glass against the table.
‘You’re a bitch. Do you know that?’
‘And you’re a failed actor.’
‘Oh, you’ve always been a better actor than me, Alice.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘You don’t think I used to hear you playing with yourself under the sheets when you thought I was asleep? People don’t do that after sex. You’re supposed to be done. I know that now, of course. I’m with someone who doesn’t close her eyes during intercourse. What were you doing, exactly? Just who were you thinking about, hmm?’
That obscure Dutch cousin of mine, Edwin.
The barista at my local Starbucks who always spells my name wrong, no matter how many times I correct him.
‘The sex wasn’t the problem,’ I reply, licking a drop of lime from my thumb. ‘It was everything else.’
As the night begins to descend on us, we unload. All the hateful, vile thoughts that have built up on both sides, but finally have an audience who’d pay good money to hear them. How can I ever forgive him? How can I ever avoid him? Of allthe people. Her. I can’t be jealous because that affects my performance. I can’t be bitter because that shows I care. He holds the power now. I have no choice but to yield, to hand in my badge and walk the streets cursed by the knowledge that Nigel, the scourge of my thirties, will swing above my head like a pendulum for the rest of my days. In this single tactical masterstroke, all quantum loopholes in the universe close.
I pay the bill and we take a walk down Southbank, watching the early evening moonlight bounce off the Thames. He’s in full flow now, asking me advice on how to ask Priya to move in, sharing details of their blossoming relationship that I didn’t need to hear but keep on asking for. We eventually make out way past The Globe and towards London Bridge, where I contemplate quitting my job, the city, the country. Then, as we arrive outside the tube station, he asks it.
‘So are we going back to mine, or what?’
I should be startled, but the drink is sloshing around in an otherwise empty stomach and I am for the taking. So is he, clearly. This, I guarantee, was not part of his plan. Today was supposed to be the last stop on his farewell tour as I stayed behind to watch him board the rocket and soar to the stars in his mighty Saturn V, presumably with Priya waving a P-45 form at me from the passenger seat. Yes, today felt like it was always going to be one shitty rondo too far for the sad and sorry sonata that is fast becoming our flipping theme tune. Yet here we are, being sucked into a black hole from which there is surely no return - but like any dark mattered mystery, the laws of the continuum must be respected, and duly applied.
He gazes lovingly at me. I shoot back my best Kubrickian stare. It’s the Jubilee Line, or his Soho bedsit. It’s fight or flight. Fuck or walk. Everything seems so quiet all of a sudden. The street-lamps point at me like spotlights on a West End stage. The seconds pass by and I haven’t moved. That’s because I’m exactly where I want to be.
He puts his arm around me. I let him. He pulls me in tight. I don’t resist. As we wait for a black cab to find us, I can already taste his plaque in my mouth tomorrow morning.
Robin Cantwell is a London-based playwright and fiction writer. With themes ranging from toxic masculinity to the technological singularity, his plays have been performed at the likes of Southwark Playhouse, Anthroplay Theatre, Calder Bookshop & Theatre, Green Curtain Theatre and Pleasance Theatre. His darkly comic short stories are regularly featured in Pure Slush's Lifespan Series.