Down and Out
The Meandering Misfortune of Maxwell Mason
I can hear the slur in my voice as I try, unconvincingly, to tell her that I’m sober enough to function and I haven’t let her down. Her eyes are welling up with anger, not disappointment or upset, yet she steps aside and lets me into our flat. I say our flat, as if I’ve contributed in some way, but that would be generous to say.
God, I’ve put her through a lot. I know this already, obviously. To be honest, I would say every friend and family member knows it, but she’ll have lied through her teeth to save us both the embarrassment.
I stumble through to the living room. I can always tell when she’s angry because the flat is immaculate, which I sometimes think is a test of how many things have mysteriously vanished when I’m left in the room to my own devices.
I look at myself in the cold light of day. I’d still categorise myself as sober despite sneaking vodka into my tea, a breakfast substitute that balances me our rather than obscuring my senses. I thought I was being clever for a long time, until she broke down and said she’d been monitoring the levels of spirits still left in the bottles, which just made me hide it from her from then on. I reckon she’s noticed, but it’s an unspoken void between us now. The next logical step was monitoring my spending. What kind of 32-year-old lives off pocket money from their girlfriend? Hell, if it was the other way around, I’d do the same too.
She’s already left for work by the time I make it out of the shower. I feel pangs of guilt about this every day. It’s my own fault that I don’t work, I know that, but it’s easier to sweep under the rug when your partner doesn’t complain about being the sole earner. Sometimes I think she likes going to work just to get away from me.
Here I go again, the pity party. Quelle surprise.
I’ve held down jobs before, I’m not a dosser. She reckons I self-sabotage with jobs by screwing up before they smell whiskey on my breath and fire me, and she’s probably right. Jesus, what is she doing with me? I’m grateful for it every day, which I should probably tell her more (preferably when sober rather than when she’s picking me up off the kitchen floor).
I decide to go for a walk and get some fresh air. A genuine intention, I swear, but one that I know will probably take the dodgy route by the off-licence. I even fool myself sometimes, which is impressive considering how long this has been going on. A bit like when they ask you how many cigarettes you smoke at the doctors ,and you always reduce it by two thirds, even when they know you’re lying.
The weather is decent for the time of year. Crisp but sunny. I stick my Ray Bans on, a gift from last Christmas that I’m adamant not to lose, as a minor gesture of being accountable for my own belongings.
I sit down for a minute to roll a cigarette and pull out a hip flask with the dregs of something left in it. It’s second nature to have it with me at this point, so I barely even notice that I’ve picked it up, like my keys or my wallet. The filter rolls out and falls between the gap in the bench, which weirdly enrages me for a brief moment, as I precariously try to balance the tobacco in the paper while blindly feeling the floor underneath me.
My hand sweeps along the concrete until it touches something. Not the filter and not residual puddle water from last night’s rainfall… something different. I pull it forward and reach under with my foot, nudging it out in front of me. A small black book. Leather bound, ribbon placeholder running through it, embossed with initials. E.J.C. I’d always loved monogrammed things. My girlfriend had bought me a monogrammed Zippo a few years back, but I’d predictably lost it on my travels one night, which didn’t seem to surprise her.
The edges of the pages are a little wrinkly, as if it’s rained on and then dried, so maybe it’s been there for a while? It’s not until I bend to pick it up, tucking my cigarette behind my ear, that I realise my hands are shaking a little. Definitely a sign to take the off-license route. The notebook doesn’t have anything written into the contact details part at the front, which is a rookie error, I’d say. Many a drunken musing or poem has been lost to the streets of London through making that mistake myself. Fancied myself as a Hemingway type.
There’s nothing written in the notebook, which seems a shame given that it has clearly cost a pretty penny. I’m happy enough taking the guise of E.J.C, so tuck it into the inside pocket of my jacket and carry on the regular route to see Jaqui down at the offie. I like her because I don’t get the pitying looks the cashiers give me at the supermarket, always silently judging the frequency of my visits for own-brand spirits.
It’s not until I’m back at the flat that I realise I’d forgotten to buy more mixer, so resign myself to having orange cordial with my vodka. It’s far too sweet, but needs must, I sigh. My phone buzzes and I’m hopeful that it’s a message from her, but it’s just my network provider, reminding me of my pay-as-you-go limit. As I forlornly slide my phone back into my pocket, I feel the bulk of the forgotten notebook, so chuck it on the side. I hear a very faint sound of paper dropping to the tiled floor – I hadn’t spotted this before.
Lying at my feet was a cheque, and a very impressive cheque at that. From: Emile Jacob Callaghan. Amount: £20,000. To: Blank. Well, this is new. This is definitely out of the ordinary. Definitely not something that should be happening.
Even I’m ashamed at my next thought. Cut and run. I convince myself, however briefly, that that’d be best for everyone. I’d have my starter money, and she’d have the freedom she deserves. It’d be easy enough. Pack my (very limited) belongings into a rucksack, leave a heartfelt note on the counter and I’d be gone.
The most obvious option is giving it to her, which I’d be stupid not to do. It would be entirely foolish to not give this to the most responsible person in my life. Do you know what else it’d be? Boring. It’d be boring and not immediately gratifying, which is my modus operandi given the mundanity of my daily life.
By the time she’s expected home, I still hadn’t yet decided what to do with the cheque. I can’t say it’s a decision I’ve ever had to make before, it’s not exactly winning the lottery, however it’s not an incomprehensible amount to hide if I played it right. I tuck the cheque into my jeans and have another quick vodka and orange cordial, wondering how much I can get down me before she comes back.
She’s in a surprisingly good mood when she gets home, seemingly everything from last night is forgotten, which is a well-rehearsed dance between us. Something about a potential promotion, an annoying colleague… I never really listen. I begrudge that she’s doing well and I’m not, so I tune out and just nod.
The cheque is playing on my mind. A good compromise would be splitting it. She doesn’t need to know it was £20,000. That amount means little to someone in a good job in the grand scheme of things, but it makes a big difference to me. I resolve to cash the cheque tomorrow. I’ll volunteer a fair whack of what I found, and I’ll keep a little for myself.
I’m so convinced by my decision to share the money that I may as well be skipping to the bank. It’s win-win. Hand her some money in cash when she gets home, and she’s none the wiser... What a responsible and trustworthy decision I’ve made, handing her the whole amount (or so she thinks), right?
The cashier looks more than sceptical as she hands over the notes. She had initially tried to give me it in £50s but that’s not very on-brand for me, no one would buy it. She rolls her eyes and gives me it in £20s. I separate it into two envelopes, one for me and one for her.
Off I stroll through the high street, feeling like a weight has lifted, both morally and financially. Feels like I fair time to treat myself to something a little more on the flashier side, I think. Those harpies in the supermarket are going to love my top-shelf selection this time. I muse, for a moment considering calling up an old pal, having not had the pocket money to invest in something harder than booze for a while.
Inevitably, I’m not even halfway home before I’ve sent him a text. It took me a worryingly short amount of time to decide that instead of spreading out the money, and getting quietly wrecked every night, I may as well have one last proper blow out. Anything left over (minus a little for future need) can be added to her envelope for safe keeping.
I meet him at the bridge near mine. It’s not the most discreet place but hiding in plain sight is often the answer. I hurriedly hand over a few notes and he pops the goods into my pocket. He’s not the most reliable guy but he’s definitely the most local, and he hasn’t let me down this time. The quality varies but it always does the job.
It would be foolish to do this in my flat. I might be able to pass off being wrecked in front of her, but I’d really rather not get caught mid-use. I head to a nice spot near the river. We used to come down here sometimes when we first moved in, although that’s obviously fallen by the wayside recently.
The hipflask has already been refilled twice by this point so I’m a little on the merrier side (the bottle is still in my bag, but I’d rather not drink from that in public, I have a little dignity left) and the powder looks good enough to me. I give it a go, a familiar feeling setting in, and a bit extra for good luck. This is my last blow-out after all.
I have the sudden urge to slump back on the grassy bank, taking another good swig of the classy vodka, a little top-up bump, and pulling my phone out to stick some music on. It sounds tinny through the small speakers but that doesn’t bother me. Right now, life feels good.
And then suddenly, it doesn’t. Shooting pains in my chest… this can’t be a heart attack, surely? I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. A panic attack, at worst? A bit of vodka will take the edge off, I panic. It goes down with a grimacing wince, the sharpness of the ethanol briefly interrupting the pain.
Oh god, I’m going to be sick. I can feel it sitting there, ready, but the desire to shift it isn’t powerful enough to drag myself up. I may have robbed his money, but this mysterious E.J.C character has really done a number on me.
My fingers scramble towards my phone. I wish she were here. She’d know what to do. And she is. Except she’s not. I know she’s not. But I see her. And then I see nothing.
About the author
Lover of writing without previously having a platform (or the confidence) to put it out into the world.
I write from experiences I've had and the people I've met.
I welcome any and all feedback!