‘Maxwell Atkinson, get yourself into this kitchen right now,’
Margaret’s voice echoed around Max’s head. He finished his shirt buttons to prolong the moment before his mother annihilated him. Nausea built in his stomach as he tried to pinpoint the source of her irritation. All he’d done was go to work. None of her friends visited the pub during his shift, which meant he hadn’t inadvertently offended one of them again. The lack of problem didn’t comfort him. It only escalated his anxieties.
‘Are you coming?’ she shouted again.
‘I’m here, what is it?’ Max asked, steeled for whatever onslaught she’d prepared.
The kitchen was spotless, except for a brown envelope, ominously displayed, on the table. Max instantly recognised Hannah’s handwriting and the source of Margaret’s frustration with him was clear.
‘Is that any way to speak to your mother?’ she asked but Max was too distracted.
He needed to know what Hannah had written before he responded; otherwise he wouldn’t be able to appease Margaret. Knowing Hannah, the contents could be anything. The uncertainty terrified Max.
‘Well?’ Margaret said, her eyes narrowed in challenge.
‘That’s better. Now, tell me why that whore is sending you train tickets to London?’
‘I don’t know,’ he lied, angry over how Hannah refused to listen to him.
Their London debate had been going on for years. It didn’t matter how good she predicted London would be for him, if Max wanted a roof over his head, he had to obey Margaret’s rules. That meant no big city adventures where he’d be able to break them without her knowledge.
Margaret held the envelope out to him. ‘Put them in the bin. We don’t have time for this today.’
His father entered the kitchen and gave Max a sympathetic look.
‘That’s a waste of money,’ he said and Max tried to appreciate the minimal effort.
‘I don’t care about her money, I care about our son. You know I like having you close, where I can keep an eye on you. I don’t like cities, anything could happen.’
Max bit down on his lip to silence himself. Anything sounded better than nothing. Even if he ended up dead in a ditch. At least then, someone would know his name.
‘Dad’s right. They probably cost a lot of money and’ He stopped when Margaret handed him the phone.
‘I told you, we don’t have time for this. Call her, tell her no, apologise if you must but then I don’t want to hear one more word about London. It’s your brother’s wedding day. He doesn’t need to hear about your selfish whims. I won’t have you ruin this for him.’
She watched Max dial the number. Max hated the look in her eyes and how she’d made his humiliation public.
‘I can’t come,’ he said as soon as Hannah answered, determined to maintain eye contact with the woman who gave birth to him. If nothing else, the smile on Margaret’s face promised a tolerable existence for the next few days.
‘Why not?’ Hannah asked.
She always managed to make everything sound so easy. It was the reason Max longed to inhabit her world, if only for an afternoon. He’d love to be as irresponsible as Hannah, but that wasn’t his life.
‘Sitting alone in your bedroom, wanking over a magazine from 1975, doesn’t make you busy.’
Max froze; petrified Margaret had overheard Hannah’s response. After the threat of the city, he couldn’t stand to listen to a lecture on the evils of gay pornography as well. Seven years later, he still had nightmares about the day Margaret discovered the magazine Hannah pilfered from her father’s shop. Luckily, she’d chosen to give her attention to his father’s breakfast, rather than his conversation.
‘That’s not what I’m doing,’ Max said, unsure how else to respond to the jibe about his non-existent sex life.
‘Sure it’s not,’ Hannah said.
The smile in her voice replaced Max’s earlier anxiety with disappointment. His life had come to a standstill at the ripe old age of twenty, whilst Hannah’s continued on a trajectory he couldn’t imagine.
‘I have to go. It’s Trevor’s wedding.’ Max hung up before she could say anything else, picked up the envelope and chucked the tickets in the bin.
Fantasies were useless in the face of reality. The phone rang and Max held no illusions over who called. He refused to answer. Instead, he followed his father into the hallway to wait for the wedding car, ready to put on a good family show.
Trevor Atkinson had the gall to marry the vicar’s daughter. It was a feat Max would never better, no matter how hard he tried. Balloons with various celebratory messages embossed on them filled the village hall. The display sickened Max whilst the number of well-wishers ensured there was no safe place to hide. Defeated by Margaret’s show of success, he took a bottle of complimentary wine to the table in the furthest corner. Out of sight, he drank away his frustrations and boredom. As the bottle went down, his thoughts drifted towards Trevor’s speech, particularly, the way he’d come to meet his wife. A spilt pint and a ruined dress might not sound like the most romantic start, but jealousy burned within Max when he pictured it. He wanted a fateful meeting in a pub, not the Fray Bentos pies, soap operas and lectures about when he’d find a nice girl Margaret inflicted upon him.
‘Remember this is supposed to be a happy day,’ Trevor said, his unwelcome arrival made worse by his decision to sit beside Max.
Max refilled his glass. ‘So I’ve heard.’
Despite his brother’s complaints, he saw no reason to change his attitude.
‘Is this about the tickets?’ Trevor asked.
‘Mum told me about what she made you do.’
‘Why do you care about that?’
‘If you want to go, I’ll buy you another ticket.’
‘Fuck off,’ Max said.
As nice as the offer seemed, Max understood the motive. Trevor wanted him to do something to anger Margaret. Max’s mistakes ensured his continued survival as the favourite child.
Trevor downed the last of his pint. ‘Fine. Stay here and be miserable.’
‘I will,’ Max said, vindicated.
His brother returned to the dance floor and his new wife. Alone once more, Max took solace in the remnants of his wine. Hannah’s plans weren’t realistic. Reality was working minimum wage in a job you hated, saving for a mortgage you’d never be able to pay back. Max might’ve wanted London, but Buckden was what he deserved. His hand stilled an inch from his glass. The wine had turned him maudlin. In need of a different beverage, Max abandoned his partially obscured table to venture back to the bar.
Out of the corner of his eye, Max noticed Margaret deep in conversation with a plain-looking girl whose peach dress highlighted her as a bridesmaid. After he made the mistake of making eye-contact, Margaret waved him over and any hope Max held of his night improving died.
‘Maxwell, why don’t you dance with Abigail?’ Margaret took his drink and replaced it with the girl’s hand.
Max pulled his hand back. ‘I can’t dance.’
Abigail looked hurt by the rejection but Max didn’t have the time to apologise. Now he knew the mode Margaret was in, he needed to be as far away from her as possible. It made the crowd that once threatened to overwhelm him, his new saviour. Hidden amongst the safety of the throng, Margaret would never find him.
‘This seat’s free,’ a voice called out.
Max turned toward the sound and met the gaze of Joe, the village milkman. Intrigued by the half bottle of wine in front of him, Max pushed away from the wall to sit at his table. Joe had always been good to him in the past. The free bottles of fresh orange juice he always gave him after a night getting wrecked in the park with Hannah, were the only reasons he survived double maths on a Thursday morning.
‘Are you having fun?’ Joe asked.
‘Weddings aren’t really my scene,’ Max said.
He noticed an empty glass beside him and filled it with Joe’s wine.
‘My friend thinks London, but I’m not sure,’ Max admitted.
‘Well, if it’s no different to here, then what’s the point in anything?’
‘I’m sure there’d be lots of opportunity for a boy like you in London,’ Joe said.
He was pushing fifty but the way he acted made Max feel desired for the first time.
‘Have you been?’
Joe nodded and anticipation prickled beneath Max’s skin. He couldn’t believe his own boldness, but the thought of spending another night under Margaret’s roof felt unbearable after so much alcohol and lost opportunity.
‘What did you do there?’
‘Lots of things.’
His knee touched Max’s. The contact convinced Max Joe was the fated meeting he’d longed for since he was seventeen.
‘Would you show me?’ Max asked, aware a wedding could just as easily become a bar.
Before Max fully acknowledged the weight of what he’d suggested, Joe led him toward the bathroom. It swung open as they reached it and Trevor appeared in the threshold.
‘Absolutely not,’ Trevor said to Joe before he grabbed a fistful of Max’s shirt and pulled him inside.
Anxiety over being caught mid-conquest by Trevor mixed with too many glasses of wine. Max rushed into the nearest cubicle to empty his stomach.
‘Leave me alone,’ Max heaved, uncomfortably aware of Trevor’s presence behind him.
‘I think you mean “thank you”,’ Trevor said.
‘Why the fuck would I thank you?’
‘Because I just saved you from having to suck some old pervert’s dick.’
‘Maybe I wanted to suck his dick,’ Max said childishly before another bout of nausea overwhelmed him.
‘Your reaction says differently,’ Trevor said as Max painted the toilet bowl red.
Once he’d finished, Max hugged the toilet bowl. He appreciated the way the porcelain cooled his skin.
The door opened and Trevor yelled at whoever entered to fuck off.
‘Who was that?’ Max asked.
‘Probably my father-in-law.’
Max laughed. He wondered what Margaret would think of Trevor’s misdemeanour. Swearing at a vicar didn’t sound like a story she could share at the next WI meeting. Trevor had sat down beside the sink and Max realised he’d be in the toilet longer than he expected, for far less exciting reasons.
‘Talk to me,’ Trevor said.
‘I’ve got nothing to say. Don’t you need to tell Margaret what a terrible brother I am, seducing the milkman at your night do?’
‘I don’t need to tell Margaret anything.’
‘No correction to mother?’
‘She’s not acting very motherly.’
Trevor ignored Max’s question and muttered something about water. When he returned, Margaret followed. Betrayal didn’t register anymore.
‘Time to go home,’ she said, condemning Max to another night alone in his single bed, in a room that hadn’t been decorated since he was eleven.
At home, Margaret launched a verbal assault over Max’s poor behaviour.
‘I’ve never been so embarrassed. The way you treated that poor girl and carrying on with Joe like that. Are you so desperate for attention? You should be ashamed of yourself.’
‘Why? What did I do that was so awful? Better to refuse to dance with Abigail than humiliating her in front of all her friends because I lack rhythm,’ Max said, emboldened by the copious amount of alcohol that ran through his system.
‘You lack character. Go to bed, I can’t look at you right now.’
Unable to argue against her vitriol, Max returned to his bedroom. Margaret’s voice followed him as she told his father all the terrible things he’d done over the course of the evening. He switched on the television, desperate to drown her out. The test card greeted him. Exhausted, he flopped back on to his bed. A wave of inspiration washed over Max when he caught sight of the phone on his bedside table.
If his family was so determined to punish him for imagined misdemeanours, Max figured he may as well get some good memories to enjoy in the process. After consuming his body weight in alcohol, it was difficult to see the numbers, but on his fourth try, he connected to Hannah.
‘Fuck it, I’m coming to London,’ he slurred before he hung up, in case she said something to make him question his decision, or face reality through his drunken haze.
A plan formed in his head while he waited for Margaret to go to sleep. Once she had, he would creep downstairs and rescue his tickets from the bin. In the meantime, he vomited the remainder of his nightly celebration into the bin.