Hand Me Downs
by Kelly Creighton
It was one of those gut-feelings, a finger that prodded Steve in the side telling him to remember the night before or face its accusing wag; as though everything that happened was solely his fault. Yet Steve wondered how much of it was, it had all started so long ago.
He left his home and headed for town in the dirty white morning under a January sky threatening rain. Steve hardly felt the cold though his arms were bare in his short sleeved t-shirt that was torn at the seams and splattered with blood. If Steve had been in his right frame of mind he would have noticed the by-passers in cars, the people coming home from night shift and in taxis, the business folk going to catch their morning flights driving slowly to watch at him on their shared towrope, like links on a platinum and pewter chain observing Steve’s staggers as he shamelessly breezed along.
The pavement under his feet felt as though it was going forward with him, a conveyor belt on rubbery legs that took him back to the scene of where it had all kicked off a few hours before he had gone home to conk out on his bed in a stupor that released the strangest dreams. It kept him stoppered in one place until he was sober enough, which was not much at all, to go and retrace his night to see the damage of the night before.
The town was potent as Steve walked intoxicated further by the nostalgia that was evoked in every inch of the small town. He passed the park where he had had his first proper fist fight at twelve years of age, and then behind the park in the dark narrow alleyway where he had lost his virginity to Cherith at sixteen. Then there was the local bar where he was headed, Fealty’s, it made Steve think about the first time he had laid eyes on Dominique.
It had been a Friday night in Fealty’s; Steve had sat with his mates supping cheap ale. Once her friend had left to go to the gents Paddy shouted over to her table.
‘Tell your mate to do one, you want a real man.’
Dominique raised her eyebrows and gave a bitter look.
‘Oh aye. I’ll not find one hanging round here that’s for certain,’ she sounded as angry as Steve had felt for months.
He imagined that she had that same ball of spite fizzing in her chest that he was always trying to suppress. The look in her eyes held a mirror to Steve and it angered him.
‘Why don’t you go and look for one,’ Steve snapped before taking a swallow of his pint.
When he looked across to the table to where she sat he knew that she had a look on her face like she would quite happily punch him square in the face, her anger was magnetic. The small slim guy who had sat with Dominique re-joined her at their table. It was a small, close-knit town yet Steve did not recognise either of them. He watched as the man hitched his hand to her bare arm, she seemed to flinch ever so slightly yet she stared into his eyes as they spoke intensely and surreptitiously making Steve feel as though he had no right to be in his own local with his mates observing their intimate huddle.
Steve despised the look of the guy, even though he had no right to feel resentful when he had Jenny and their kids back at home. He was annoyed that he was allowing himself to get envious of a greasy man in his local for sitting with a girl who Steve considered only average looking with a real mouth on her.
Paddy had chuckled to himself,
‘I did ask for that didn’t I?’
‘No, she’s a cheeky so-and-so,’ Steve rattled the last coins in his jeans pocket, it was his round next and cash was drying up.
‘Steve look at your face,’ Del laughed, ‘you are really hacked off aren’t you?’
Steve felt himself get heated again, like before he had left the house on that summer evening when Jenny had criticized him for not being helpful around the house. It sounded like Jenny had rhymed the usual drone about him needing to get a job yet he knew that there were no jobs to be had since the factory closed months earlier; almost a year ago now. Steve had walked out coat-free then too in the warm summer air; yet now he was too sore, numb all over, to feel the cold.
Steve remembered that humid night, he noticed Dominique straight away. She was wearing a short floaty dress that clung to her in all the wrong places, or all the right places if you were a man like Steve, whose head was steeped with all things unfamiliar and unobtainable. He could tell that she didn’t normally dress up like that and that she looked uncomfortable. It made him glad.
When Dominique had left her table she caught Steve’s eye, he stood up and followed her into the corridor assuming she was going to the toilet. Dominique was leaning against the cigarette machine that sat in the nook in the corridor outside the gent’s toilets. She covered her free ear while she spoke in a low voice on her phone to drown out the music that played in the bar. There was a hush as Steve approached her, watching her intently.
‘Yes? Can I help you?’ she sneered at him.
He curled his lip at her like he had noticed shit on his boot.
‘Creep’ she muttered under her breath as he entered the toilets.
For a moment he stood behind the door contemplating telling her she was lucky she wasn’t a bloke, but he’d never hit a woman or threatened one. Steve wasn’t about to start no matter how low he had begun to feel. He was a lot of things but not that.
The next morning Jenny had taken the kids to her mum’s then she slunk back into bed with him. She rubbed her hand under the good shirt he had fallen asleep still wearing; her hand was on his ribs. Jenny kissed Steve on the neck.
‘Are we mates again?’ she whispered leaning over him to peer into his face.
Steve beamed; his eyes were two slits on his face still puffy with sleep.
‘Aye, we’re mates,’ he said rolling over to put his face into Jenny’s hair.
He imagined it was Dominique’s; it was quite easy, their hair was the same length. Steve wrapped Jenny’s hair around his fist while they had sex carrying on his dreams that had recurred all night. He dreamt of having his way with the strange mouthy bird from the pub. Afterwards, Jenny was still stirred.
‘Is it my turn now?’
Steve had turned his back to shut out the guilt. When Jenny sighed Steve heard it although he tried to ignore her disappointment and fall back to sleep.
The toes of Steve’s boots were scraped; he could see them as he faltered along the asphalt. The leather was basically ruined. His dancing shoes as Jenny called them, she always knew if he was going out on the lash to Fealty’s if they were on his feet. Steve’s jeans were yawning at the knees. Jenny had taken to them with nail scissors and the cheese grater in an effort to make them look designer by snipping and fraying the edges, she had seen an article that inspired her in one of her magazines. Now the jeans were massive gaping mouths, bloodied broken jaws.
He traipsed across the road feeling the breeze that blasted down his shins. The tightness of dried blood cracked open into a cold sting as Steve jumped up the kerb. He couldn’t get Dominique out of his mind. When he pictured her he realized he could only see that girly dress. The thought of that woman and that dress was too much of a strange marriage to make the vision feel like a real memory.
It had been three months until Steve saw Dominique the second time.
‘Alright gobshite,’ she greeted him.
This time she had a puffa jacket on. She sat outside the front of Fealty’s smoking. Steve joined her, without a word she lit his cigarette with her orange Bic lighter.
‘Roll ups?’ she asked with a snorting laugh.
Steve wouldn’t tell her it had to be roll ups since he had been laid off work and was relying on benefits, how could he buy cigarettes with four mouths to feed?
‘Have a proper smoke,’ she said handing him one of her Benson and Hedges.
The collar of her coat sat high beside her ears and her hair was tied up. Steve looked at the ponytail he had imagined for months.
‘You haven’t much to say for yourself tonight have you?’
‘I have plenty to say for myself,’ Steve said, then stared at her; she took a draw of her cigarette and kept his gaze unfazed and comfortable despite his glower.
‘Tell me something then. Tell me something nobody knows about you,’ she said.
‘You are a bit of a head-case aren’t you?’ Steve said.
He thought that she was a high maintenance kind of girl like he the ones he had always seemed to pursue when he was younger. Like Cherith Dominique had trouble written all over her, yet he was still pulled willingly up that gradient.
‘I’ve never had a guy call me that before.’
‘Been many has there?’
‘Mind your own,’ she swiped.
‘Oh, I see. But you want me to tell you something about me that nobody knows,’ Steve raised an eyebrow at her.
‘Alright then, don’t. I don’t give a toss,’ she said stubbing out her cigarette about to walk back into the bar.
‘Are you with your fella tonight?’ Steve asked before she could leave him outside alone.
‘The one from the last time I saw you. The Weasel.’
‘Who wants to know?’ she cast a wary eye over Steve.
‘And who are you when you’re writing home?’
She offered a hand and he took it in his, holding her palm, gentle and succumbing in comparison to her hard shell. Steve held it a moment too long.
‘Clear off! You aren’t called Dominique!’ Steve pulled his hand back to take the cigarette out of his mouth, it wavered between his teeth.
She frowned then laughed, crossing her arms across her chest in the cooling evening air. Dominique jutted her jaw. There was something in her confidence that made him want to knock her down, but only because he thought she could take it.
‘Do you think I’m lying?’
‘Where did you get a name like that?’
‘My dad’s French.’
‘The fuck he is! Aren’t the French supposed to be … refined?’ Steve laughed.
‘I’m a head-case and unrefined?’ Dominique shook her head.
‘And I’m a creep?’
She sniggered then lit another cigarette, taking a long draw of it and then releasing smoke and melting into a smile.
‘Is the slate clean then?
‘Alright Dominique,’ Steve said in an awful mock French accent.
‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘the weasel, as you call him was trying to get back together with my cousin. I was being go-between.’
She looked at Steve who stayed silent.
‘He had just got out of hospital after slitting his wrists. I wasn’t in the mood to take your nonsense that day, you know?’
Steve glanced at the sky and saw the stars had emerged without him realizing it.
‘Shit. Did they get back together?’
‘Would you take back an emotional blackmailer?’
‘No,’ Steve said.
‘Good,’ Dominique said, ‘you take no crap either. That’s why I like you.’
Steve was surprised to hear her say it. It had felt as if people who liked him had always been there, they had all grown up together like a strange interchangeable family lumped together through time served and duty.
Like Paddy and Del. Like Jenny in many ways.
Steve looked at Dominique. He reached over, cupped her face and kissed her in the street, in full view of his neighbourhood and the possibility of people who knew him well passing by. Yet the autumnal sky provided him the darkness and courage, the sheer abandon, to press himself up against her and kiss Dominique as though they were alone.
‘Let’s go to yours,’ he said appealing with his eyes, his forehead pressed against hers.
She tapped her index finger on to Steve’s wedding band she had just detected.
‘You didn’t mention that did you?’
Dominique edged past him. Steve watched her go inside, the oversized coat looked like a man’s. It made him resentful. He finished his smoke then went back into the bar, but he couldn’t see her anywhere.
The next week Jenny took the kids to her mum’s so that she and Steve could have a night together. She had said that they were always in each other’s pockets and indoors. Jenny complained to Steve that they never went anywhere anymore as a couple.
Steve and Jenny went to the cinema, after the picture she wanted to go to Fealty’s for a nightcap.
‘Why rush home?’
Steve vexed that Dominique would be there and that she would go off like a cocked pistol, with Jenny following after. Really he had only seen Dominique twice in months, eventually he decided it was dubious that she would be there at all.
‘Alright, just the one. We are hardly made of money.’
They had taken the table by the door. Steve watched the window while Jenny spoke about how the kids needed new school shoes again after one term.
‘It gets to me,’ Jenny said, ‘when you don’t listen.’
‘You seem like you are in a world of your own,’ she said ‘I don’t think I can take it anymore.’
Jenny’s eyes filled up. Steve flitted his gaze around the bar to see if any of the bar staff were looking. Gossip was spread around the town almost as fast as chlamydia.
‘Jenny, stop that.’
‘You need to get a job Steve. We can’t go on like this. We never have any money for holidays. We need to get away. You are always down here while … where am I? Do you even notice?’
‘I do care,’ Steve told Jenny, holding her hand then pressing it as though it was a volume switch that pressure would quieten.
‘I need to say these things. I have been reading about marital problems lately. We aren’t communicating. You never listen to me,’ Jenny said then released a slow, long disappointed sigh like it was impossible.
Steve had seen his old boss Keith from the factory enter Fealty’s then. Keith had landed on his feet with a job for the council. Steve couldn’t be dealing with his patter and Jenny’s meltdown too. He jumped up and strolled out of the door past the spot where he had wanted Dominique to take him home just a few days before. For an instant Steve wondered if Jenny was right; if it was hopeless. He wondered if they were meant to be with different people. Only the thought of his kids being raised by some other clown stemmed the notion. Steve fumed up the street while Jenny hurried behind him.
‘Steve,’ she bawled, ‘I need to talk to you.’
He marched on making his way homeward. Jenny arrived home in a taxi ten minutes later.
‘If you think that I will chase you like a wee girl you can think again,’ she said before running upstairs.
The crash of the bedroom door seemed to shake the whole house to its base.
Steve’s head was aching while he stumbled past the courthouse. Those steps held memories of the direction his life had taken; it was ten years since he had first met Jenny properly. Jenny and her friends had stood on there that evening smoking and sipping bottles of coke with vodka in them; as though they were the ultimate bad girls laughing in the face of the law, just months from being legal drinkers. Steve had known her to see from school but had been too busy pursuing Cherith to notice Jenny properly. Cherith had just had the abortion and was resting up when Steve and Paddy had went out to the bar to commiserate an untimely ending and mull the closeness of being made responsible too young.
Steve glanced at the steps of the courthouse and pondered the irony, how he had ended up tied the night he had just narrowly escaped. That night Jenny had ended up in the toilets of Fealty’s with him. She had given Steve oral sex and became his next infatuation. Cherith had become solemn and sensitive compared to Jenny who seemed uninhabited and carefree. They somehow traded places in more ways than one.
Jenny took Steve’s mind off Cherith. Jenny refused to sleep with him until seven months in, unaware that she was already more adventurous than her predecessor. Steve put on an act with Jenny, one of disappointment although really he knew she was right in the palm of his hand. He need do very little to please her in return.
Fealty’s was open already. Steve walked in and up to the bar.
‘Look at your face Steve,’ said Moira the barmaid, ‘God that is bad knock you took.’
He touched his face and felt its stickiness like on his knees. His hand had dried blood etched in streams between the ridges of his fingerprints.
‘Whiskey,’ he groaned.
Moira shook her head and then poured a measure into a tumbler against her better judgement. The bar manager James came out from the back room. Steve had known James since they were kids growing up around the corner from each other. They played together, ringing doorbells and running away, smashing flowerpots and sneaking into the unlocked garage of the house on the corner of both their streets where they used to steal wine and drink it in the park. James frowned as he came round to Steve’s side of the bar where he sat on the stool beside him.
‘Steve you are still barred. If you have come here to talk me round I appreciate it but I can’t allow you to treat this place like that.’
Steve looked around at the crumpled glass that had been swept onto the dustpan beside the bin liner of rubble. He couldn’t remember what had happened exactly, but he couldn’t forget why it had.
‘James, I’ll pay for it,’ he said.
‘Pay your tab first,’ said James yielding the whiskey from Steve’s fingers.
‘Go and clean yourself up before you leave,’ James held the glass in his palm as he walked behind the bar, ‘your face is open like an onion,’ he winced.
In the toilets Steve’s reflection stared back, bruised and bloody. His forehead was swollen and gaping open; he could barely open his left eye. A long low ‘fuck’ was all he could manage to say. In those toilets Steve thought about him and Jenny in the cubicle, he couldn’t remember which one, just her face grinning, her pushing him, him backing into the booth and her kneeling in front. He thought about the first time he saw Dominique, how she had called him a creep outside that door. Then there was Cherith who had told him at the corner table about her pregnancy the day before his seventeenth birthday. He remembered how he had cried in the far toilet cubicle. He would never forget that.
Steve recalled the fear and then the remembrance that time evoked, a face that had appeared to him every so often; a child, half Steve and half Cherith. He never wept when he envisaged the baby but it did still make him wonder. It was hard to tell if things really happened for a reason, a finger on the pulse of things, or if they had been too young, the timing and circumstances all too complicated. Steve looked at his face and imagined his kids, his real-life smiley kids seeing his face all busted up and their family all busted up. He walked out of the toilet ready to sort out everything out, one way or another.
The night before the fight Steve had a few drinks alone in the house. Jenny was still gone with the kids to stay at her mum’s for a few days' breathing space. She had been at home less and less the last couple of months. Del and Paddy had arranged to meet Steve at Fealty’s as per usual. They had sat at their table when in walked Dominique with a clique of girlfriends, one was Lesley who had gone to high school with them.
‘Steve, I believe you know my cousin Minnie, or Dominique,’ Lesley said standing over the men’s table kinking with laughter.
Dominique was grinning from her seat.
‘Why, what has she said?’ Steve asked instantly regretting it, Lesley hooted.
Steve sat and waited for an opportunity for her crowd to scatter before he went to speak to Dominique on her own.
‘What rubbish are you telling people?’
‘Go away,’ she said plainly repelled by him, ‘I’ll tell people what I want to tell people, alright!’
‘You are a head-case,’ Steve said.
Dominique swiftly raised her hand and slapped him across the face. Steve grasped her wrist while she scowled. Del sprung to his feet.
‘Calm down Steve, leave her.’
Steve released his grip and strode back to his table, everyone was watching silently.
‘You are the psycho,’ Dominique screamed at him.
Steve toppled the table, drinks doused Paddy who leapt up boiling with rage.
‘You fucking eejit,’ he shouted, ‘calm down the hell down. We know you are going through a hard time Steve … you are just acting the maggot now.’
Steve swayed while James and Billy the husky bouncer loomed.
‘I’m going,’ he shouted before pointing at Dominique, ‘bunny boiler!’
‘You should be more concerned about what your wife is doing and if she’s going elsewhere,’ Paddy said in the noiseless room.
‘What does that mean?’ asked Steve squinting to see straight, ‘you know nothing about my Jenny.’
‘I know a damn sight more than you do. She said I could give you a lesson,’ Paddy said.
Steve remembered now how he had ran at his so-called best mate. They had fallen against the glass partition to Fealty’s kitchen that had shattered. Steve remembered pinning Paddy down as he punched him again and again. Shards of glass wedged into Steve’s knees. The smashed bottle on the floor ended up in Paddy’s hand; he had swung it and stabbed it into Steve’s forehead.
Steve walked to the door of his lifelong friend. Paddy’s wife answered it looking horrified.
‘Oh my god! Look at you too,’ she hugged Steve then touched the skin beside his cut.
Steve recoiled at her touch, then he looked into Cherith’s eyes; the ones he always pictured when he thought of the baby she said that she had no choice but to abort when she was uncertain if it Steve’s baby, or her then-boyfriend Paddy’s baby.
‘Paddy is still asleep. Who did this to you both?’ she asked, stepping back to let Steve into the hallway.
‘We did it to each other,’ he remained on the doorstep.
‘Why?’ Cherith gasped, pulling a hand to cover her mouth.
‘Never worry,’ said Steve, ‘I think he was getting his own back.’
‘Paddy started it?’ Cherith’s expression told Steve that she found it hard to believe.
‘These things start long before we know we are starting anything,’ Steve said turning to leave.
‘What is that supposed to mean?’ Cherith asked grabbing his arm.
Steve shrugged her off and walked away.
‘It’s all a knock on effect. That’s all.’
Steve lit onto the street. He knew that Cherith was watching, she was as ambiguous about him as she had always been. Yet he knew that Cherith was without reservation that she had had a lucky escape all those years ago. It was the hand around his gut, always squeezing.
Kelly Creighton’s writing has featured in The Stinging Fly, Wordlegs, The Bohemyth, Ink Sweat & Tears, Skylight 47 and in numerous other publications. She is editing her historical fiction novel, working on her second poetry collection and compiling a short story collection.
Rudolf Vlček is a Czech photographer. Prints of his work may be purchased through Flickr.