Take My Advice-Slip (short story)

The ATM screen is flashing at me. Would I like an advice slip with my cash? I press the button for yes. This is the last withdrawal I can make for a while, unless I want to slip back into my overdraft. I need the printed reminder that I’m broke as a spur to action on the job front. Heating bills are ever imminent and the coat I’m wearing wasn’t cheap.

Benedict is an expensive habit. He never asks for anything but he never pays for anything and we either eat out or we order in. We like cocktails. We under-dress in over-priced clothes. He texts me in the morning to let me know which label he plans to wear for our dinner dates; we like to match.

Beeping and spitting out my cash card, the ATM thanks me. I thank it back, under my breath. This money is going to buy me a whole lot of love.

I know his mother well. Cecelia and I go way back. We’ve never pretended to like each other before and neither of us thought that me dating her son would do much to change that. He has strange ideas about us becoming one happy family. Ceci and I make nice when he’s around, plastering on fake smiles like it’s Max Factor day. When Benedict turns his back, the claws come out like flick knives. If he wasn’t so beautiful, it would be handbags at dawn at fifty paces.

When Ceci found out Benedict and I were seeing each other, she sent me a note asking me round for tea. We ate cucumber sandwiches on her croquet lawn and talked around the subject. I’ve always admired her garden, such a fantastic setting for parties. She’d probably rather die than be seen in an non-coordinating outfit. On the outside, she’s a very beautiful woman. The fat bees were out in full force, buzzing around our heads and coated with pollen. She wore a slightly veiled sun-hat and a day-suit in cream lace. I can’t remember what I was wearing, except that the leather on my shoes was scuffed and I crossed my feet at the ankles and tucked them under my chair.

The housekeeper wore white cotton gloves, poured our drinks and took our empty plates. The subject of Benedict still hadn’t been broached when Ceci mentioned that the sun was over the yardarm and I probably had other things to attend to. The housekeeper handed me my jacket in the hallway. I held Ceci’s cold hand and kissed the air next to her cheeks. ‘Such a pleasant afternoon, Jacob,’ Ceci said, showing her teeth. ‘I’ll see you at the library fundraiser on Tuesday, of course.’ I murmured that it would be a pleasure.

Halfway down the front steps, she caught up with me. ‘You forgot this,’ she pressed an unsealed envelope on me. It was padded with bank notes.

‘This isn’t mine.’ I said, holding it away from my body.

‘That is yours. My son is mine.’ Ceci turned to go back inside. At the top of the steps she paused and looked back at me. ‘I think that’s all we need to say about the matter.’

I resisted the urge to count the contents, leaving the envelope in the mailbox at the end of her drive. It was a twenty minute walk to the nearest bus stop. The strip of sunburn on my T-zone didn’t go down for a full week. At my age I can’t afford that kind of skin damage.

Now the ATM is sputtering notes. It’s hard to sort the notes into my wallet with these gloves on. I take them off and tuck them under my arm. I’ve never worn textures like these before. Winter is a whole different world with silk underwear and supple leather gloves. Merino wool scarf. Cashmere jumper. I can move my arms, even with the requisite five layers on. The outside world is no longer something to be struggled against.

Before me, Benedict claims he’d never slept on sheets without knowing the thread count. Ikea sheets bring him out in a rash. He told me that the morning after our first night together. I examined every pale, toned inch of his body and couldn’t find a single blemish. We went to Harrods together that afternoon. It was worth every pound if that’s what brought him back the next night. And the next. I was so scared it was going to be just another one-night-stand.  I would have bought a new sofa if he’d said he didn’t like the colour of the one I owned.

I had been bored for a long time before I met Benedict. That’s all he was at first, something to chase away the dust in certain corners of my life. He is breathtaking – magazine quality looks. My first Adonis. I drown looking at him. He is my lifebelt. When he leaves my side, I find it hard to breath.

My so-called friends dismissed Benedict as a mid-life crisis. Elliott explained it to me, as kindly as he knew how. ‘If you’re over forty and the relationship doesn’t involve discussing a mortgage it isn’t a real relationship. He’s a phase.’ I told him he was jealous. He told me everyone was laughing at me behind my back. I told him to tell them to fuck off. He said that if I didn’t accept that it was just a fling and move on to someone more appropriate, he was going to tell Ceci. I told him I was in love and he sighed and ordered another round of martinis.

There’s my advice slip. I put it in my pocket without looking at it. I double-check I have my cash-card. Everything is in order. The group behind me in the queue are chattering loudly about birthday plans to go ice-skating at the weekend.

For my last birthday, my three oldest and closest friends ganged-up to buy me a present. Larry insisted on producing via sleight of hand, pulling purple ribbons from behind my ear. I sat there and watched Elliott loudly protesting that none of us were impressed while Fiona bounced in her chair, clapping her hands and squealing. Then they were all unusually silent as I undid the pink ribbon around the square, brown cardboard box. Benedict was at college and I suspected them of having planned this for a time when he couldn’t be present.

I took the lid off, and tilted the box from side to side to make the needle spin.

‘It’s an effing antique,’ said Larry. ‘Like you.’

‘We thought you could use some direction in your life,’ said Fiona. She was on her feet by then, hiding behind Larry and Elliott.

I thanked them, politely. I didn’t take the antique brass compass out of the foam padding. I put the lid back on and left the box on the table. My lack of excitement or appreciation at the gesture was palpable as I twisted the ribbon between my fingers. Elliott signalled for the waitress to bring the bill. Fiona said she had to dash back to work. Larry said they’d give her a lift on their way home. I politely declined to join them; I had plans.  On my way to meet Benedict, I pawned the compass.

The ice-skaters take my place in front of the ATM as I move away, tucking the wallet into an inner pocket of my coat and replacing my gloves. I’ll have to hurry if I’m going to make it to the theatre on time. Benedict and I have tickets for some comedian, I can’t remember the name – according to Benedict’s college friends he’s very good. I’m sure it will be execrable, but it’s Benedict’s birthday tomorrow so he can laugh if he wants to.

Being evicted from my flat was a real wake-up call. I turned up on Elliott and Larry’s doorstep with a suitcase and a bunch of flowers. The three of us sat in the chintz palace they call their living room and drank instant coffee. ‘He’s young enough to be your effing son,’ said Larry. I agreed, examining the reflection of the sunlight off my Italian shoes. ‘And he’s a tosser.’ I shook my head.

‘Why do you have such a failing for pretty little faces, Jacob? I was saving you for when Larry finally cracks and divorces me.’ Elliott laughed at his own joke and linked arms with Larry on the sofa. Neither Larry nor I smiled.

Benedict often remarks that he finds it strange I have so many friends who are also ex-lovers. I know he’ll change his tune when he has a few more of his own under his belt. Once sexual attraction has been explored and burnt out, the shell it leaves is so very comfortable to crawl around in.

‘When are you going to grow up?’ Larry asked. I shrugged. They agreed I could move into their basement. Larry’s mother lived there until she died, and they’ve not got back into the habit of using it for anything more than prop storage.

‘We’ll find a way for you to pay us back,’ said Elliott and winked, salaciously. Larry carried my suitcase downstairs and I borrowed his car to collect the rest of my things.

Benedict was unimpressed with the move. ‘How can you bear to live in Brixton?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you want your privacy?’

‘Elliott and Larry are having cash-flow problems,’ Lying through my teeth was getting easier every day. ‘They asked if I could move in. The rent pays their mortgage.’

‘You’re such a good friend.’ Benedict kissed me. ‘But I’m not staying overnight in this shit-hole.’ He keeps his word. Every penny I save in rent goes straight out the window paying to shuttle him home in unnecessary taxis night after night.

These tickets weren’t cheap either. I shoe-horned them onto my credit card. I booked on Benedict’s laptop, waiting until he went to the bathroom before processing the payment. If it hadn’t gone through I was going to throw a glass of water over the keyboard and claim it had crashed.

Ceci is throwing a family lunch tomorrow. I’m not not-invited. It was easy to arrange a meeting at last minute, with a fictional Library Board member. You can say what you like to Benedict, he just laps it up.

My lips burn when I think about him. The scarf around my neck feels like his thighs.  It’s almost too warm. I have to unwind it, let the night air circulate around my throat. Help me breathe.

When this money goes – and I know already there’s a few rounds of drinks and a taxi back to mine and then the inevitable taxi back to his – then I won’t have a penny in the world. I haven’t paid Larry a thing since I’ve moved in. This morning there was a polite note in their fridge, telling me of course to keep helping myself to their groceries. I didn’t realise they knew I knew where their spare key was. I’m surprised they hadn’t just changed the alarm code.

An overdraft wouldn’t be all that bad. There’s no chance of a promotion, not with the number of sick days I’ve had recently, but the bank won’t know that. Something can be arranged.  I can’t keep borrowing from Elliott on the sly.

The air smells and feels like imminent snow; oil and metal at the back of my tongue, small hands slapping my cheeks. I’m going to be too early, again. I slow down, trying to avoid the piles of slush. Watermarked shoes wouldn’t go down well. Everything has to be perfect, tonight and every night, so that Benedict doesn’t get bored.

In the theatre bar, propping myself up in a corner, warming up before I take my coat off. This coat was more expensive than anything I’m wearing underneath, might as well get the benefit of the cut while I can. First impressions count for everything; you never know who Benedict might turn up with. He promised tonight would just be the two of us, but I know better than to take that for granted. The flow of people coming in bumps right into me but the lighting further in is a killer and I don’t want to miss Benedict’s arrival.

I flex my fingers. I can’t remember how much cash I took out. Perhaps there’s enough to get something to eat. I’m early enough to nip out for a sandwich. So long as it doesn’t have mayo. I’d thought I was in pretty good shape until I saw him naked, stretching. He wants us to go to the same gym, work-out together. I lied and said I had a deal through work. He sulked for a week and I had to buy him a new hat before he got over it. I promised I’d look into him joining my gym. I’ve never been in a gym in my life. I sneak up into Larry and Elliott’s when they’re out and use their treadmill. I hide my weights in the cupboard when I know Benedict is coming over. I take the advice slip out of my pocket, but then I spot Benedict.

Benedict arrives by himself, but he sees some non-mutual friends before we’ve said more than hello and he pulls out of my embrace when I’m halfway through a welcoming hug. As he walks away I tell him I’ll get the drinks in and he turns around long enough to place his order then I’m left mouthing I love you at the seam down the back of the Armani leather jacket I bought him. A few seconds later his friends are squealing hello and I can see how damn young they all are and I try really, really hard not to care.

Once I’ve placed our order, I reach into the inside pocket of my jacket but my wallet isn’t there. I check the outside pockets. I pat myself up and down. I check the bar in front of me. I check by my feet. My head swims and I have to stand straight, hands splayed on the bar, watching the barman making the drinks I cannot pay for.

My first grief is for the wallet itself, made of real leather and costing more than a month’s wage. Benedict has taught me how to discern the difference, running one’s fingertips lightly over the surface as if in search for static. There’s an irregular grain in leather. I rub it with leather cream every Sunday, ritually working my way through my new accessories. I brush animal hairs off the coat, polish the two good pairs of shoes. I divide the dry cleaning into desperate and can last another week. I iron the bed sheets. I take everything out of my wallet and rub it with leather cream, leaving it to soak in overnight. I put on a facemask, moisturising hand gloves, and a hot oil treatment in my hair.

I’m so caught up in missing the wallet that I don’t even think about the money that was in it. I think how there’s no point in cancelling my credit cards because there isn’t a drop more to be squeezed out of them anyway. I try to remember if I have any photos in it. Maybe a handwritten note from Benedict—or did I put that in my diary?

I think about how the dark brown colour was like melted chocolate and when I first saw it in the shop I wanted to lick it. It matches my eyes. It matches my belt. I touch my belt, reassuring myself it’s still there. I tuck in my fingers and stroke it with my thumb, feeling the supple pressure of authenticity. In this meditative stance, I feel calm. My wallet is gone.

I check the inner pocket again, disbelieving its emptiness. I take the advice slip out of my pocket and look at the numbers printed on it. It strikes me that this is a final record of all the cash I have just lost. I put my hand back inside the inner jacket pocket where – and I’m certain – I put my wallet, safely. Then it sinks in that the pocket is as empty of cash as my bank account. All that money – gone. I have to sit down. I think I’m about to discover how people hyperventilate.

All I feel is ice. I can’t feel the overheating scarf, the weight of the coat, or any circulation in my hands. I rub my fingers. I can’t feel my hands. I think I’m going blind. There’s a rushing in my ears.

I’m twelve years old again. I’m standing half in and half out of the glass sliding doors leading from my parent’s office to the small patio at the back of our house. French windows, my mother calls them. She loves languages, loves books, loves words; eats them up. She’s writing letters at the desk while my father takes a delivery. She’s writing so fast, and she’s angry that I keep bothering her. I can hear the men calling outside and the wet crunch of the wooden pallets as they unload them onto the gravel. The lorry is reversing with a heavy, low beeping. My mother rubs her temples. Without turning around, she tells me to shut the damn door already. I’m so proud that I’ve remembered they’re called French windows, but when I correct her she balls up the piece of paper in front of her and throws it at me, still not looking, and hisses like a kettle.

I step inside the doors as quietly as possible. I pull the French windows shut and they snake across faster than I expect, trapping my left hand.

The pain is cold and hot at the same time. It travels up and down my arm in shivers. I bite at my lips and shut my eyes, keeping quiet. I stand there and wait to be released. My other arm is limp. My knees are limp. I can’t help myself. I slide down onto the carpet – soundless – and wait there, my hand hanging like a flag above my head.

I don’t remember how long it takes before my mother comes over to retrieve the ball of paper she threw at me. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to fainting.  Until now.

My head is hanging down between my knees and I’m vaguely proud of myself for having remembered that tip, in a time of crisis. I’m still holding the advice slip in one hand and I focus on it, trying to drag myself back into the moment and deal with the situation. At the bottom, handwritten in biro, are the words Spend less. Think more.

I always thought that time would slow down, in a moment like this. Long, clear, treacly moments of realisation. Impact. But the bar is filling up. Someone takes the spare chair next to me. I’m hidden behind a wall of bodies and I don’t think I’ve moved, haven’t had a single thought. From this position I catch occasional glimpses of Benedict and his friends. His scarf matches mine. Green to my blue. We’re aquatic. He turns around, scans for more people he knows, perhaps wondering where his drink is. I duck my head back down.

I can call Elliott, promise this really will be the last time, get him to drop some cash in to the box office during the first half.  Then I can tell Benedict I misunderstood about the drinks and ordered them for the interval.  In the meantime, maybe someone will find and hand in the wallet, without taking any money from it.  Shit.  The tickets for tonight were in the wallet. Did I write this, did I write Spend less. Think more?  Did someone at the bank do it, for a laugh, scrawling on a pile of empty receipts waiting to be printed?  The handwriting is familiar. They can reprint the tickets, surely.  People must forget them all the time.  I can check, call Elliott at the same time, sweet talk him into doing me just one more little favour for old time’s sake.

That bastard Elliott isn’t picking up.  They’re refusing to reprint the tickets without the credit card from the original booking.  ‘It’s been stolen,’ I say, but they refuse to make an exception.  I press redial and wonder if Elliott will agree to pay for a new pair of tickets too.  Perhaps the box office can give me cashback and he won’t have to come down here in person.  I watch the hands of the people coming through the twin revolving doors, hoping one of them will be holding my wallet.

Still no answer.   I am torn between retracing my steps and telling Benedict I feel ill and have to go home, immediately.  I redial and watch the second-hand tick round the large clock face above the box office. There are twenty minutes left before it’s too late.  The phone rings, unanswered.  ‘Waiting for someone, mate?’ It’s Larry, standing behind me with his arms folded.  My knees are weak with relief.  I am saved.

‘Where’s Elliott?’

‘Do you need to talk to him about something?’ I peer over Larry’s shoulder, wondering if Elliott is in the toilet or checking his coat.

‘He isn’t answering his phone.  Did he leave it at home?’

‘I’m here to talk to someone.’

‘Did you arrive together?’

‘No we did not effing arrive together.’  The corners of Larry’s mouth are trembling.  His hands are gripping his arms.  ‘Elliott isn’t here.’

‘Actually, it’s really amazing that you’re here, Larry, because the thing is I’m in a bit of a fix.’

‘Let me guess.  You want to borrow some money.’  Larry’s foot is tapping on the tiles.  ‘I’m telling him, Jacob.’

‘I’m trying to tell him myself but he isn’t picking up.’

‘Not Elliott.  I’m telling your mid-life crisis boytoy.’  In my hand, the phone clicks on to Elliott’s voicemail again and I hang up.

‘You know I hate it when you talk about Benedict like that.’

‘I’m going to tell him you have no money. I was talking to Ceci earlier. She had no idea you were our guest. Did you know that?’

‘Ceci and I don’t talk much.’

‘She seemed to be under the impression that you were helping us with the financial crisis I was unaware we were going through.’ To anyone watching us, we’re just a pair of friends hanging around near the entrance stair of a theatre. I can’t help but notice how good my coat looks compared to Larry’s tatty old thing. It’s not as if he couldn’t afford something better. I don’t understand why they insist on living out in Brixton; they could easily afford somewhere slightly more salubrious.  Larry makes good money on the nightclub circuit, entertaining punters with his card tricks and making their watches disappear. I entertain wild ideas of them moving to Chelsea and Benedict moving into the basement of their new place with me.  ‘It isn’t the lies that concern me, Jacob.  It’s the stealing.’

‘I’ll replace the cheese.  I didn’t think you’d mind.’  I didn’t think he’d notice.

‘And the tie-pin?  And the cufflinks?’

‘I can explain.’ I really didn’t think he’d notice.

‘Did you know those ornaments belonged to Elliott’s grandmother?  I’ll bet you didn’t even get half their real value.  He puts one finger up, pointing at me, and drives it into my chest as he walks forward, pushing me back up against a wall.  A couple of people glance at us and hurry up the stairs into the theatre.  ‘Do you think I’m some kind of idiot?’

‘I was desperate.  I needed the money.’  That’s true, at least.

‘I hope he was worth it.’ A thousand times over.

‘I’ll tell him.’  I won’t

‘I wish I could believe you.’  I wish you would.

‘I love him.’  That’s true, too.

‘It’s none of my business.’ He removes his finger.  I put my hand up to massage the skin, wondering if it will leave a bruise. ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Elliott.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Both of us know I’m lying.

‘He blames the cleaner.’  I nod, the shame itching like a rash on my neck. Hidden by my pocket, I crumple the advice slip in my fist ‘I don’t want to fire her. I said I’d look into it.  I’d appreciate it if you could write me a list of where you sold them.’’

‘I can’t thank you enough for letting me stay. Larry.’

‘I don’t want Elliott to be more upset than necessary. I would never ask him to stop seeing you.’  I grab Larry’s arm.

‘We’ve been friends for so long. We’re like brothers.’

‘I’d never ask him, but I am going to ask you,’ Larry looks me in the eye and I feel cold again. ‘It’s time for you to leave, Jacob.’

‘Benedict is waiting for me upstairs.’ I let go of his arm. We both know that isn’t what he means.

‘There’s no need for any fuss. I’ll give you a month.’ He smoothes down the sleeve of his tatty old coat. ‘I used to like you, Jacob.  You’ve turned into a right tosser.’

‘I can change,’ I’m ready to promise anything.

‘I hope you can. Once you leave, I don’t think you and Elliott need to stay in touch.  I had the locks changed this afternoon.’  I nod. Larry sighs and says he wishes me well, really he does.

‘The thing is, I need to ask you a favour.’  My face gets redder as I talk, stumbling over the story of the lost wallet.  I look at my beautifully polished shoes.

‘You’re asking me for money?’  Larry puts a hand out and raises my face, forcing me to look him in the eye.  I nod.  He waits.

‘Yes.’  He fumbles in his pocket and brings out a wallet.  My wallet.

‘I wanted to see what you’d do.’  He holds the wallet out.  I snatch it from him and start looking through it.

‘You took it?’

‘Did you think, even once, about telling Benedict the truth?’  I think all the money is still there.  I bring the advice slip out and uncrumple it, double checking the amount.  Something clicks when I see the handwriting at the bottom.

‘Did you write this?’  He has a sick sense of humour.  The warning bell for the first curtain starts to ring.  A pre-recorded voice asks us to make our way into the auditorium.  Larry smiles at me and walks away.  I find the tickets.  He’s written on them too, the same looping letters.  I can’t afford these and I can’t afford to keep lying to you.

As we take our seats, Benedict apologises for leaving me on my own. ‘| haven’t seen Gary for ages.  You understand, don’t you?’  I say that I do. I tell him I had to go out and take a call.

‘Sorry about your drink, darling.’

‘Can I have my ticket?  I want to go out to the toilet and I’ll need it to get back in.’ I root in my pocket.

‘Can’t find it. Just tell the usher you’ll be back in a minute.’  He pouts and waits.  I exaggerate the motions of my search.  ‘You’d better hurry.’  He pushes past my knees.  When he’s gone I take the tickets out and read Larry’s message again.  Then I tear them into tiny pieces and drop the scraps under my seat.

—–

*first published in By Invitation Only in 2010

*exhibited in Nottingham in 2012 as part of World Event Young Artists 2012

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