She’s always late. Every single time, Max’s father says. He is tapping his thumbs on the steering wheel – a nervous habit of his. Max doesn’t say anything, and there is silence while they sit waiting in the car. He knows his dad isn’t expecting a response – these words are just something he says every time they are here, repeated so often that it is like he is playing a role, as if he’s an actor practising his lines. It is a scene he plays, with Max as his silent partner, a scene he has grown used to every time they wait in this supermarket car park.
His father turns the car stereo on and taps the steering wheel in time to the music that comes from the speakers at low volume. It is a country song, music Jeanine got him into – along with the passion for line dancing and the dedication to karaoke. A woman sings the song; fast and upbeat it tells the story of her deadbeat husband whom she loves none-the-less. His father sings a line and Max can’t help laughing, and his father turns his head to look at him and grins, singing in his surprisingly deep voice: I’m afraid to let him go this time, because everybody has something, everybody has someone, and I ain’t letting go of mine.
For a second Max feels like a small child again, feels what it was like to have his father look at him with his full attention like that and laugh. He can feel himself grinning back, but then a movement across the car park catches his eye. He turns to look out through the windscreen and sees his mother walking towards them.
She is carrying a large shopping bag over her shoulder. She is wearing a big, puffy coat that drops all the way down to her knees, her legs in black skinny jeans. Her hair has changed colour since the last time he saw her. Even in the half-grey light of late afternoon he can see the bright orange ponytail knotted on top of her head.
His dad sighs and pulls the handle on his door and swings it open out into the cold and damp December air. The airlock they’d inhabited, the warm cocoon they have sat in, is broken as the seal of the door is sucked from its resting place. Now the noise and cold breath of London is there once more, stealing into the car, sending up a chill.
Come on, his dad says getting out, time to go.
Max sits for a second and then shifts, unbuckles his seatbelt. He gets out, stands up and sees his dad is already talking to his mum..
Here you go, he says, handing Max his blue sports bag. I’ll see you tomorrow. Goodbye Melissa, he says to her and turns to go.
And Max stands in front of his mum, who says nothing until his father has driven away, and then, ruffling his hair in exactly the way he hates she says, My God, Maximillian, I swear you get taller every time! We’ll have to start putting a brick on your head to slow you down.
They walk out of the car park, and he watches as his father’s car turns into the street, and is gone. He and his mother turn right and walk down a narrow paved path that cuts between two apartment blocks. They walk in silence for a few minutes and Max is conscious that the bag his mother is carrying slung over her shoulder must be heavy, filled with groceries, but he can’t seem to find the words to offer to carry it for her. His own back hangs loose from his shoulder, only half-filled with his sports kit and a change of clothes for the weekend.
How was football? his mother asks. Did you win?
It was just a practice today.
Ah, I see.
Was it a good practice?
He shrugs. They carry on walking in silence. As always Max can feel a sort of barrier between them, something that keeps him from relaxing with her immediately. He’s sure she can feel it too, but she ploughs on regardless and has moved on from talk of his football to telling him about her new job and how her boss is a total wanker – You should see him Max, a great big lummox, a great big sweaty bastard with flabby arms, sitting behind his desk in his office, in his cheap shirt and clip-on tie, sucking up to head office like the moaning buffalo he is. I stood for twelve hours straight the other day, running his shop for him while he barely peeped out to check the place was open at all. I’d like to lock him in there one day. He probably wouldn’t even notice.
She cackles as she shakes her head, pulling a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her enormous coat.
Now, don’t you go telling your father about these, she gestures with the pack at him. I can’t have another lecture from him about how I’m poisoning you even though I only smoke ‘em when we’re outside and anyway, you probably have a sneaky one or two every now and again.
She grins at him and winks, and Max bursts out laughing. He still wants to tell her more about the football. He wants to tell her how he was the fastest person at practice today running sprints in warm up, how the only person who scored more penalties was Malik, and Malik is the best player they have. But he doesn’t. Not yet.
The sky overhead is grey, like cast pewter, the light flat and directionless – just everywhere all at once. The air is heavy with water, an anticipation of rain.
Nice hair, he says as she lights the cigarette.
You like it? She says as she exhales. I got tired of green – it just looked like I’d grown a plant on my head. I think this is better, anyway. What do you think?
I said it’s nice, he says. And he scuffs his right foot on the path to make a rasping noise he likes. Around them the estate buildings rise in concrete and brick, balconies either entirely empty or rammed with junk.
All right, all right, she says after he says no more, I was just fishing for compliments as usual. She takes another drag on the cigarette and then, pointing at the shopping bag says, I’m making a big dinner tonight for us. My friend Reggie is coming round and he’s bringing his daughter. She’s about your age, I think. You’ll get on. I think she’s at your school.
Max doesn’t say anything. He isn’t surprised she has invited people round on the one night he is spending with her. He shouldn’t be surprised that there is a daughter to distract him so his mum can chat to this guy.
Reggie is great, Max. He’s built like a whatsit-called…shithouse…but is really sensitive. Always talking about art and life, really deep shit, you know? He took me to the ballet when he found out I used to do it.
This is a lie. Max knows this, and his mother knows that he knows. The closest she’s been to being a ballet dancer are a few tap lessons in secondary school and a tutu she still wears every Halloween.
They’ve turned the last corner now, down a quiet side road, past parked cars and identical terraced houses. He follows her through the little gate, and up the path to the bright red front door of the house she bought with the money inherited from her parents ten years ago. It is a small, neat Victorian cottage. Worth a million today, she told him sometimes, but she wasn’t selling, wasn’t going to betray the memory of her mum and dad so easily.
As soon as she starts opening the door, pandemonium breaks out on the other side. He and his mum rush in, squeezing through quickly and slamming the door shut as two Labradors launch themselves at him, scrabbling on the tiled floor of the corridor, leaping up and licking at Max’s face.
Down, he says, giggling, come on girls, down.
Somehow his mum has slipped past them, carrying her heavy shopping bag to the kitchen, while he is all but pinned to the front door with one dog leaning on his legs and the other standing on its hind legs, with its forepaws on his chest. He pats and scratches at them affectionately, trying to reciprocate their enthusiasm. Finally his mum calls to them from the kitchen and they drop down, turn, and trot off to find her. Max stands with his back against he door, more dishevelled than ever, trying to catch his breath. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. He’s had it on silent since he and his dad arrived at the car park – he’s tired of having to explain every buzz and beep to both of his parents, who are far too curious.
He looks at the screen. Seventeen messages. Fuck.
One is from his dad, telling him to have a good weekend. The other 16 are from the same person. They are almost all one or two words long, a sentence reading vertically down his screen:
in or out
Got to get stuff organised
but we need someone who can kick a football
are the only person I know who can do that
Let me know
There are emojis scattered throughout the text indiscriminately, without any real meaning as far as he can tell.
Max is still looking at the screen when he hears his mum calling him from the kitchen. He puts his phone in his pocket without answering.
Tell me what this is again? His dad says as he drops him off at the school. Max shrugs, grabbing his backpack from the floor of the car.
It’s a Christmas thing. Like a nativity thing.
His dad looks at him for a moment, Why are a group of sixteen-year-olds doing a nativity play?
Max shrugs again, opening the door. I don’t really know. It’s some drama group thing, like a modern take on it or something
And they need you to kick a football from the stage, right at the end?
Yeah. I think. I don’t know yet. See you later. I’ll get the bus home.
Max shuts the car door and walks towards the school hall. The chat with his dad hasn’t helped the butterflies he can feel in his stomach, the strange feeling that he is both hungry and sick at the same time.
He opens the door to the hall and stops just across the threshold, still holding the door open, unwilling to let it shut behind him just yet. There are around ten other kids, mostly his age, standing in three loose groups, chatting or laughing. They are all wearing what he thinks of as actor clothes, grey or black sweatpants, black hoodies – he suddenly feels self-conscious in his old football kit. He could still leave, he could turn around and quietly close the door and no one would know. But, as he is stood there, thinking about backing out through the open door a voice calls out from across the hall:
Max! Maximus. You came!
Daniel has spotted him. Max stands still, caught standing halfway into the room, his backpack drooping from one shoulder. Daniel is walking across the room towards him, and Max lets go of the door, feeling it swoosh shut behind him. He takes Max’s free hand and pulls him into the room.
I can’t believe you came. You’re such a tease, not replying until the last moment. This is Aisling, this is George – yes, she’s a girl too – and this is Bono, his mum fucking loves U2. It’s a tragedy he can’t sing.
Max says hello to each in turn, nodding his head, conscious that Daniel is still holding his hand. These people are people he has seen, people he has met, even spoken to when he has spent time with Daniel, but this is their turf and their sense of cool detachment and knowingness, like they know more than you about life and stuff, makes the skin along the back of his neck itch. They smile at him, or just nod, and then get back to what they were talking about beforehand.
So, Daniel says, we’ve been work-shopping this for a while and we’ve come up with the story and the setting and everything – Jemima over there is going to be Mary, and George is Joseph. They’re refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean when she has a baby in the boat. But, Daniel says, swinging his arms wide, We’re telling it backwards, so we follow their journey home, ending with them back home in Eritrea where Joseph is a football player in the local league. It’s based on a true story, see? I’m the narrator, of course. And you, my friend are going to be our Angel Gabriel, right at the end, who delivers the annunciation like a football kicked across the stage – literally.
Max just stares at him for a few seconds and says, Um. Sure. Just tell me what to do.
For the next two hours Max watches as the actors block out the short play they have devised. He sits on a chair next to Daniel, facing the stage as he directs them, and reads out the narrator’s bits. For the first half-hour he worries that it is going over his head, that Daniel will discover how thick he is, how inartistic he is, but then he starts to worry that the play is stupid and Daniel will be laughed at. That he too will be laughed at when he takes part in it. But then, slowly, he becomes absorbed in the story and the process and he realises the play isn’t just sad and serious, it is funny, deliberately so. He is watching Daniel, again, when he turns to him and says – And this, Maxie, is finally when you come in.
How had he met Daniel? How had they first started talking, become friends? Max thought about this often. Most days he replayed the scene in his mind at least once – replayed it as he sat in class diligently writing out his notes but never speaking, as he ran across the football pitch weaving in and out of small orange cones or kicking the ball as hard as he could at the goal, as he sat on the bus home from school, as he lay in bed at night, listening to the radiator in his room ticking over as it cooled.
He thought about that class trip to the British Museum at the start of term, three months ago, everyone piling onto the tube, entirely occupying a carriage with their talk and their arsing about. Max had ended up squeezed in a corner by the door as more and more people got on at each station, and Daniel, who he’d never spoken to at school, had been squeezed into the space with him. Max sometimes found the Underground overwhelming: all of these people with their own lives – an unimaginable number of universes spiralling through their minds, multitudes of worlds that expand with each passing second as people think about their jobs, their wives, their clothes, their small petty grievances that are incredibly important right at that moment. If you stop to think about it, Max thought again, it will drive you mad, all those thoughts pressing in on you, occupying the little space that is left in the carriage, suffocating you. He always thought that people seem to carry a bubble of thought, of influence around them that impacts on others, that can be extended or contracted depending on the space you’re in – Max liked to pull himself in as close as possible, to not be seen or felt. Most people on the tube seem to want the same thing, except for the kids from his class, of course.
He was, then, trying to ignore the crush of people, trying to think of other things, when a voice, far too close, had quietly said, Hey. I guess I should at least say hello before touching you up like this.
And, it was true; his body was pressed up along the entire length of Max’s body – his front welded to Max’s side. And Max was suddenly, keenly aware of the points of pressure where they touched. He didn’t know what to say in return, other than a weak, Ha.
And Daniel had given his own small laugh in return, twisting his mouth, a little as if to say he too was in on the joke, whatever that joke was. And he had talked for both of them for the rest of the journey, once accidentally having to steady himself by grabbing Max’s upper arm, squeezing his bicep through his school jumper and shirt so that Max felt the impression of his hand long after he had pulled it away.
And they had walked around the museum together then, with Daniel listening with what seemed like genuine interest as Max told him what he knew about Egyptian history. They stood in front of a naked Greek statue and, giggling a little at his huge, towering nudity, filled in the worksheet their teacher had handed out. Sitting at the rows of tables in the great court, the Autumn sky visible high above beyond the glass dome, they’d shared a slice of cake and flapjack and for some reason Max had suddenly felt he could leap up and punch through the ceiling and escape out into the cool London air.
You’re in a play? Isn’t that really gay?
Reggie’s daughter says this to him across his mother’s small dining room table, her eyes cold as an assassin’s.
No. It is not, Max says, trying not to sound like her words have bothered him, trying desperately to control the blush that is threatening to show him up.
It is though, innit?
Leigh-Ann, you really can’t use gay as a word for something bad or stupid, Max’s mum says. I’m sure they’ve told you that at school. Reggie, tell your daughter.
But I wasn’t, Leigh-Ann says looking to her father. That drama group is just really gay, especially the kid who runs it.
How would you know?
The words are out of Max’s mouth before he can stop them.
Because, Leigh-Ann says slowly, like she is explaining something to a child, he was snogging Jeremy Enright for most of last year. Everyone saw them at the prom.
There you go, Reggie says. She was just laying the facts out.
Still, Max’s mum says, you shouldn’t throw words and accusations around like that, you never know who is listening, even if he was snogging this Jeremy. She stands up and begins to clear the table, saying, Now, who wants cheesecake? I bought it myself!
Later, when he is helping his mum clear up in the kitchen, when the others have gone, his mum says, That girl is a handful. Reggie is going to have so much trouble. I should know, she says looking up from the sink, I was a handful.
And she flashes him her big grin again and she has soap in her hair from where she pushed a strand behind her ear and he wants to reach out and smooth the bubbles away. Instead he carries on drying the glass in his hand with a cloth, and, raising an eyebrow, says, I bet you were. Poor grandpa and grandma.
Max, she says, swatting him with the dishcloth, was that a joke? You do jokes now?
And his mum giggles as she returns her attention to the dishes in the sink. Oh, they loved it really. It kept them on their toes. Of course, you never gave me an ounce of trouble Maxie, I’ve never worried about where you’re going, what you’re doing. You’ve got such a steady tiller. I wish I had that.
She laughs again and hands him another dish to dry. And they finish the rest of the tidying up in contented silence, the radio gently playing smooth classics from the 80s.
Dress rehearsal. Max stands in his football kit with a golden tinsel halo hovering six inches above his head, held there by a loop of wire that is digging into his temples. He stands in the centre of the stage and when Daniel, as the narrator, explains that the Angel Gabriel is there to deliver the joyous news of Mary’s pregnancy, Max drops the football from his outstretched hands and boots it across the hall at a target they’ve put up against the back wall. It has to land perfectly, otherwise it will just smack into the audience.
And Blackout! Daniel shouts when the ball lands as it should. He turns to him and says, laughing, Max, that was perfect! You’re a genius. He grabs Max by the shoulder and then pulls him into a hug. Max doesn’t have time to reciprocate before he is off talking to the rest of the cast, fine-tuning their performances. And he feels suddenly bereft, alone on the stage as other people talk about their craft while he stands like some sort of living prop. He suddenly wonders if this is what people who hate football or sport feel like in PE lessons.
Max? You alright? Daniel asks, gripping his shoulder. We’re heading out for a quick bite to eat if you want to come?
Um, yeah, sure. Let me just tell my dad.
And Daniel looks at him for a couple of seconds too long, before saying, Great! And then smiles at him before walking off again.
They walk down the high street to a fried chicken place sandwiched between an Ethiopian shop and a Lebanese deli that never has anyone in it. Sitting with his small box of greasy chicken and chips Max concentrates on the food in front of him, eating it with his hands as the others do. He’s come here before with the football team, but then the talk was mostly about football and girls, and sometimes about girls who play football. But now George and Aisling are arguing about some play they all went to see the week before at the National Theatre, disagreeing loudly about a couple of points that Max just does not understand. He suddenly realises that Daniel, sitting across the table from him, isn’t talking at all, hasn’t joined in the debate, but is just sitting eating, openly watching him.
So, Max, he says when their eyes meet, how do you think it went tonight? He is holding a piece of chicken in his right hand, his lips are shining with grease and for the first time Max realises how red his lips are. Absurdly red, they stand out against his pale skin. Max swallows.
He doesn’t know what to say. He never bloody does, he thinks. Never has the right words, never has any words.
I don’t know, he says. I’m not an expert or anything.
But you liked it though, I saw you watching the first half and you liked it.
Yeah, but…I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Daniel laughs, Neither do I! Then he bites into his chicken again.
They finish eating and say goodbye to the others. He and Daniel are walking together, in the general direction of Max’s home, neither ready to get on a bus and end the evening. It is cold and their breath mists in the air. Max wishes he had changed out of his football shorts into something warmer. Daniel is talking about his parents, about how his mother worries about him constantly, while his father treats him like a small kid.
What about your parents, Max?
What do you mean? Max says. They have reached a small public garden that stands between two rows of terraced houses and Max opens the gate in the low fence that rings it.
What are they like, I mean? Like are they hovering parents, or can you do whatever you like? I just don’t actually know that much about you, I guess. You’re a serious enigma. You know, the footballing guy who knows shitloads about Egyptian history and almost never speaks unless he’s asked a direct question.
Max is quiet, thinking about what Daniel has said. The two boys walk through the darkened garden, following a narrow path through tall rhododendron, ducking under a low hanging willow tree. In the centre of the garden is a small pond, covered in a thin layer of ice, just visible in the streetlamp light that filters through the trees. A bench sits by the water, shielded from the road, hidden here like a secret meeting place.
There isn’t much to know about me, Max eventually says, sitting down on the bench. I’m pretty boring.
But, no one is actually boring, Daniel says, sitting very close, his leg touching Max’s bare knee. Everyone has something, right? Something going on in their head that is unique and interesting and weird. He gently taps the side of Max’s head as he says this. Everybody’s shit is important to them.
Max doesn’t say anything, just looks down at the frozen water. Without looking up from the pond, carefully keeping his eyes away from the other boy he asks, What do you want to know?
There is a pause. A silence interrupted only by the distant noise of traffic on the main road and the passing of an ambulance. Daniel huffs out a long, slow breath. Well, he says, Why don’t you live with your mum? I only ever see your dad dropping you off or picking you up after rehearsal.
Again Max doesn’t say anything. Then Daniel takes something out of his bag – his own halo from the play, neatly folded up. He carefully bends the wire back into shape and then, grinning, places it on Max’s head.
Max looks at him, confused, but then takes a deep breath, then lets the air slide out of his mouth in one continuous stream of fog, before he breathes in again and says, Well. Um, my parents have been divorced for a long time. I was ten I think. Anyway, I lived with my mum from that age because she was near the school I was at and my dad had been transferred to Sheffield. It must have made sense at the time. So…well…it went badly. When I was fourteen the teachers started noticing that I wasn’t clean, you know. I mean, it’s embarrassing, but I couldn’t shower or anything because mum hadn’t paid the gas and electrics and in winter it was too cold to wash in cold water all the time and so I just didn’t, for days sometimes. And then I started smelling a bit, but didn’t notice because I had a whole lot of other shit going on and I really didn’t care, I didn’t notice stuff like that, and then…well they sent people round. The house was a tip, I’d tried my best to clean it, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Anyway, there wasn’t any food in the fridge, and they made me tell them how I’d been living by stealing the money my dad sent my mum.
He pauses. Stops. And then, still not looking up from the ground says, Sorry, that was probably too much… and then he looks up at the other boy carefully, slowly raising his eyes up to meet his. Daniel just looks and looks at him, but says nothing. Max rushes to fill the silence, I mean, she’s fine now, she’s a lot better, but my dad had to move back down to London and get a house nearby and I moved in with him – which is amazing that he did that… anyway. There you go…
There is a silence again – just the sound of the two of them breathing, and of a shallow breeze moving through the willow tree.
Bloody hell, Daniel says quietly, shaking his head in a quick jerking motion as if trying to dislodge a thought. I don’t remember any of that happening to you. I mean, I didn’t know you, but I feel like I should have had some clue that something was going on. Bloody hell, poor Max.
He places his gloved hand on top of Max’s naked one and squeezes it. Don’t say that, Max says. Don’t look at me like some sad case kid. He’s annoyed, but he doesn’t move his hand away. Everyone has something, right. Everyone has a thing they have to deal with.
And then right then, for whatever reason – maybe the secluded space they sit in, maybe the late-night quiet, maybe just the way Daniel looks right then, with the light in his hair and eyes and how red his lips look – whatever the reason, Max leans over and kisses him.
It only lasts a few seconds. And then he is pulling away and Daniel opens his eyes to look at him. And Max is leaning in again for a second kiss, but the other boy stops him.
Jesus Max, you really are a fucking surprise. I’m… but look mate…I’m not sure this would be a good idea. I’m flattered and everything, you’re super cute and I really like you, but, you know, as friends, right?
Max doesn’t breathe for a few seconds, but then turns, facing the pond again. He pulls his hand away, feeling himself contracting again, pulling himself inward, concentrating himself in as small a space as possible. Sure, he says, of course. Sorry, stupid of me. Ha! He claps his hands together twice then stands up. Sorry. Anyway, I should go home.
And he starts walking away towards the path that leads out of the garden and into the world.
Wait, Daniel says, wait. Max! He’s up and walking quickly towards Max as he says it. Look, I’m just surprised is all, I had no idea you were even…well that you even had, you know…
Well. I do.
And, with that, Max turns and walks away.
His phone buzzes again. It is the third time in half-an-hour. He is sitting at the dining room table doing his maths homework. Normally this is something he enjoys, but the constant distraction of messages flowing into his phone at an outrageous rate is making it difficult to concentrate.
What is going on with your phone? Max’s dad asks from his chair on the other side of the room where he is reading. Is it your mother? Is she chasing you about something?
No, it isn’t mum. It’s this drama thing, wanting to make sure I’m doing the performance on Friday.
And are you?
Yes. I’ve told them yes like three times, but they keep checking.
Maybe she fancies you, this person texting you, his dad says, coming over and sitting in the chair next to him, and Max throws him a dirty look.
What? It’s totally possible that someone fancies you Max. Girls used to fancy me all the time and you and I are very similar, aren’t we? We’re both handsome, right?
He waggles his eyebrows at Max, who just shakes his head.
At that moment Jeanine sticks her head into the room and says to his dad, Drew, the girls are ready for a goodnight kiss. Apparently you’re the favourite again.
His dad gently grabs her forearm and looking up at her says, I’ll be right up. Just helping Max with his maths homework here.
Jeanine snorts, teasingly pats his hand, and says, You let him think that Max, he needs it. Drew, your daughters have about five minutes on the clock. She heads back upstairs, and his dad looks back at him.
The thing is, son, we’ve not really talked about this much, about love and girls and such. I know you sometimes find these things difficult, and I know you might think now that love or whatever isn’t important, but it is. Everybody has someone, or needs someone.
Max stares at the equations in his maths book, unable to meet his father’s gaze, trying to think what to say. Dad, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve been listening to too many country songs again.
His dad laughs, but then carries on, refusing to be distracted: Think about how much the football has helped, that’s something. Wanting something more is good too.
Max’s phone buzzes again.
Maybe answer the phone, his dad says, getting up to leave the room.
Max flips his phone over and brings the screen to life with the press of a button and a swipe of his thumb. Seven messages:
I just want to check
Max looks at them and then quickly types:
Fine. Also, yes, I will do the show still, stop asking.
A football flies through the air. It arcs over the heads of a small audience – each person following it with their eyes, craning their necks as it passes over them. It smacks into the back wall of the hall – and the lights go out.
There is total silence as the audience sits, unsure what to do next. And then, after ten seconds, the lights pop back on all at once and the cast stands on stage holding hands and they bow once as the audience claps. It is only as they finish their bow that Max can feel the tension that has bound them to the making of the play dissipate. The other actors drop their hands and walk off the small stage purposefully, chatting softly once they have entered the wings and begun to gather their things together.
As they follow the others Max is keenly aware that Daniel is still holding his hand. It is such a casual, matter-of-fact gesture he doesn’t think anyone else has even noticed. He isn’t sure if Daniel is even aware he’s doing it. Max gently pulls his hand from his grasp and picks his bag up from a chair, turns and walks away. He is good at going unnoticed, good at leaving before people realise he was even there. He has spent most of his teens under the radar, standing on the edge of crowds, sitting on the periphery of a group – he can even become an accepted member without people realising he has joined.
At the back of the hall he walks up to his dad who is stood with Jeanine, his coat slung over his folded arms. Max, love, you were brilliant Jeanine says, giving him a hug. Really, we’re so proud of you.
Thanks, Max mumbles. He looks up at his dad and for the first time realises they are almost exactly the same height now.
Yes, well done, his dad says, clapping him on the back. I can’t say I knew what was going on at all, but it was really interesting. He smiles and, feeling a weight lifted from him, Max grins back at him.
They start moving towards the exit and his dad asks, Do you need to stay and help clean up or something?
Max looks back at the group of actors still standing by the stage. No, he says, I think they’ve got it sorted.
They are outside already, walking towards the car when he hears a shout behind him.
Max! Hold on.
I’ll meet you at the car in a second, Max says and turns to face Daniel, who walks up to him slowly now, having obviously run to get here.
Hi, Max says.
Hi, he says.
It went well tonight. Well done.
A silence stretches out and grows between them. Max is happy with silence. He knows how to use it, how it can make other people uncomfortable, how it can convince them to leave you alone. But, just as it is becoming unbearable, Daniel starts speaking.
Look, dude, I’m sorry about the other night…
No, I mean I’m really sorry. I was just surprised. I hadn’t really even considered…Look, you’re such a closed box, Max, like a proper mystery and I just thought…I just. You make me curious and I. I normally know what to say and I just have no idea now. You make me feel completely dumb, like I can’t speak the right words. The whole time we’ve been friends I’ve been desperately trying to cover over that I don’t know the right thing to say to you.
He looks so lost that Max suddenly feels sorry for him. It’s fine, he says, Seriously Dan. I shouldn’t have done it. I guess I’m not very good at. I sometimes really don’t have a filter, right? I either say nothing or just blab whatever is in my head. If that makes sense? I never know what to say, but I can’t stop myself saying the thing I’m thinking sometimes. There are times when not saying it is almost painful, you know? And for some reason you make me want to say stuff like, I love you and think you’re amazing and you smell so…I mean, like fucking perfect…you smell perfect and I know I shouldn’t say things like that. Normal people don’t say things like that out loud to a person they hardly know, but there you go.
It is warm in the kitchen as Max stands preparing sprouts for boiling. Condensation covers the inside of the large window that looks out into the small back garden, water pools at the base of its white frame. His mother fusses with a turkey crown she has roasting in the oven.
Close the door mum, Max says, it’ll never cook if you keep poking it like that.
She sighs, stands up and slams the oven door shut. You know Max, it’s times like this I really miss a glass of wine.
He looks up at her, his eyes wide.
I’m joking! She says, quickly, holding her hands up, seriously kidding.
He throws a sprout at her, but she ducks and it lands on the far side of the small kitchen. Before either of them can move, Sharon, the younger black labrador, has snuffled it from the floor.
Oh God, his mum says, Sharon is going to be farting up a storm later.
Max just shakes his head at her and then says, Go and do something useful like set the table, or, I don’t know, anything but check on the turkey again.
His mum rolls her eyes at him, smiling at him, and says Fine. God, you really are your father incarnate.
She leaves the room, Sharon trailing after her, and Max slowly, methodically makes his way through the pile of sprouts on the counter. He peels the outer layer off each green globe, one by one, cuts the stalk off, and then, with a very sharp knife, carefully slices the shape of a cross into the bottom of each.
Max! His mum shouts from the living room. Do you think the twins need to sit next to each other? Or should we split them on either side of the table?
Put them together, Max shouts, it’ll be chaos otherwise.
Max’s phone vibrates again. He can almost count the regular number of beats between each buzz, can almost feel the rhythm of the messages arriving, ticking over, piling up on top of each other one by one. He tries to ignore it as he works on the sprouts, but he can almost feel the tension building, both in his head and on the phone.
Right, that’s done, his mum says walking back into the room. It’s a pity Reggie had to be with his family today really, would have been nice to have him and Leigh-Ann here along with your dad and them. Don’t you think?
She steals a sprout from the pile he’s created in the bowl and pops it in her mouth.
Hey! Max says, Stop stealing. Also, how can you eat them like that? It’s disgusting!
She shrugs, chewing. You like Reggie though Max, don’t you?
He’s all right. He seems nice.
All right? Just all right.
Max sighs, carefully putting the knife down, wiping his hands on a cloth. He’s nice mum, I think he’s nice to you and you look happy.
She blushes then. And, for the first time in years she suddenly looks really young, how he imagines she looked when his father first met her, when they fell in love, before everything went to shit.
His phone buzzes again and, sighing, he turns back to the counter to pick it up. Twenty-eight messages. One from his dad saying they are on their way over. The other twenty-seven are all from the same person, one after the other:
What are you doing?
I missed seeing you this week.
I thought about it
I thought about what you said
I have decided
I am a dick.
I am a dick because
you are right
not saying the important stuff is stupid.
I…can’t believe I’m saying this too
so why the fuck not?
And it’s so obvious
I love you too
Now reply already.