The Wrestlers: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
Calvin rested his cue on the flesh between finger and thumb. Sombre, absorbed, he predicted his move, lines and angles in his mind connecting black and white across the table. Jason Reid waited, the tip of his cue in his outstretched hand, the handle resting on his sharp black shoe, a Fred Astaire with his cane. Calvin shot. The black fell in place with timely clicks. Jason drank at leisure from his pint glass; the victor’s was unmoved, untouched.
‘Best of three?’ he asked.
‘It wouldn’t make any difference,’ said Calvin. ‘You’ve lost two games already.’
‘I could still win the third. Don’t murder hope.’
‘Gail’s doing an early,’ said Calvin, ‘and I’m tired.’ He had stripped to white sleeves for play, but now he fussed with the collar of his raincoat, stooping behind the table under the cellar’s curved wall. The Wrestlers’ was spacious, with billiards and skittles spread over two underground floors, but it was famously always a little too cold.
‘Now you’re a man of leisure for a while I thought you might appreciate the free time. And I think Chloë wants to say something before we go home.’ Two men in jeans and embroidered shirts were waiting for their table, and Jason grew impatient with Calvin. ‘If you’ve had enough, man, clear the top of your pint and let’s go.’
Women with black heels and white thighs clattered and chattered on their way to the bar. Gail and Chloë were sitting nearby, their backs to a radiator, their hands like friendly beasts on the table. Chloë was leaning a little forward for hearing, and her long hair was almost as pale as her wine; Gail, slender, dark and calm, stopped talking about Calvin, redundancy and jobs, glancing at Jason a little shyly. Calvin stood behind her, one hand on her breast. Jason stepped lightly over the chair next to Chloë’s.
‘He thrashed me twice,’ he announced, ‘and then got tired of winning. I deliver him as instructed, dear, but he may have had his fill of celebrations by now.’
‘Celebrations?’ said Chloë. ‘You’ve not told him already!’ She looked in sharp annoyance at Jason, while Gail, laughing, said, ‘Have you been holding out on me, Chloë?’ Calvin moved his stool aside and sat down; his knee pressed against the cold wrought iron, and his right hand found Gail’s fingers under the table. ‘I don’t know anything,’ he murmured.
‘We were going to leave it until you got back,’ said Chloë. ‘I don’t know what Jason was on about. But I feel uncomfortable talking about it, Calvin, since Gail was telling me how hard you’re finding it at the moment. It’s just that Jason has been taken on full time at the college, that’s all.’
‘But that’s wonderful,’ said Gail. ‘I don’t see why you couldn’t have told me that. And Jason’s worked hard, and had trouble before, so it’s not as though we’ll feel jealous.’ Determined to toast them, she tapped her glass against Chloë’s and Jason’s on the table, and drained it. ‘Well done, guys. We’re happy. Really.’
‘It isn’t all, though,’ said Calvin. ‘Or she wouldn’t have minded if Jason had told me. This is at least as much Chloë’s news as his.’
A barman, passing, cleared Jason’s glass and Gail’s; his thin white shirt showed the pallor of his arms. ‘Better not try making excuses up on the spot, Chlo’,’ Jason said. ‘Before she got embarrassed by the extent of our good fortune, my wife wanted to break the news that she’s expecting.’
Calvin, leaning forward, kissed Chloë on the cheek; his hand gripped Jason’s like an arm wrestler. ‘Your lives have changed for the better,’ he said; ‘I’m glad.’ Gail was leaning sideways to embrace her friend; her dark hair mingled with Chloë’s blonde, and she had let go of Calvin. ‘Steady on, Dunmore,’ Jason said. ‘I may still need the hand.’
‘When’s it due?’ asked Gail. ‘There must be a thousand questions to ask you!’
‘The last Sunday in March,’ said Chloë. ‘And there’ll be time for all that. Gail, I don’t know if you’ve realised, but now that Jason’s got this new contract I won’t be carrying on at work. But we really want to keep seeing you guys.’
‘Yes, that’s lovely,’ said Calvin, rising, ‘and let’s celebrate with a drink.’ He was liable to sullenness, presaged by such absences; his friends knew the signs, and trod with care. Jason got up to head him off at the bar; Chloë buried her face in Gail’s shoulder. ‘Don’t cry,’ Gail pleaded. ‘They’re coming back.’
Chloë got up and marched towards the toilets. Calvin put a tray on the table, and poured wine into glasses with a steady hand. ‘I bought Babycham,’ he said. ‘Where’s Chloë?’
Head back, mouth open, Gail gave herself to laughter. ‘Oh, Babycham,’ she said, ‘that’s worst of all.’
‘Give her a minute,’ said Jason smoothly. ‘She’ll be back.’
Calvin’s hands lay clasped on the table like the hands of a man at prayer; the sleeves of his Armando coat, crooked at the elbow, showed uneven lengths of his shirt cuffs, white, a little frayed round the buttonholes, and the blue ink of a telephone number fading from the back of one wrist. Jason leaned back on the rear legs of his chair, rocking it with easy poise, his right hand holding the table edge for stability, his left hand dug deep in his pocket. His drink, still foaming, was pushed well away from the table edge, breaking the regular circle of glasses; his right foot pedalled the solid iron of the table-stem. A coil of damp tissue lay on Chloë’s knee, clutched in a hand turned white by the Wrestlers’ gnawing cold. Gail’s slim fingers rested on top of Chloë’s, emerging timidly from the long cream sleeve of her top. The bright halogen lamps with which the Wrestlers’ was lit thrust black shadows aside from their noses, showed the puffing round Chloë’s eyes, darkened Gail’s to black.
‘I guess I over-reacted,’ said Chloë.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Calvin.
‘I saw you get up, and I thought you were going because of what I’d said. I misunderstood, I can see now.’
‘It must have looked very abrupt,’ said Calvin.
‘It’s just that it struck me, how well things are going for us at the moment, and you and Gail aren’t having it so easy. I know I wouldn’t have reacted as well as you have.’
‘I think he’s got the message, Chlo’,’ said Jason.
‘Well, anyway. We wanted you to know first, and we’re happy we told you.’
She sniffed, rubbed her eyes, and showed a brave smile. Calvin returned it, clicking his glass against hers. Light strained through cigarette smoke became silver and granular; cast ridges of darkness on the knitted furrows of Gail’s top, on Chloë’s skirt of ruched velvet; glinted heavily on Calvin’s ring, Jason’s glass. The group’s rapt inwardness, the murmur of their voices, the stillness of that stone-faced man and the tear-swollen cheeks of the blonde, created a circle around them which no one transgressed. Only, in the foreground, a tattooed hand raising a pint glass to yellow lips would obtrude itself, or a barman come near to take their glasses, but turn away. The crowd thickened. A property developer watched the young farmer sitting beside him, examining street plans, and saw that his hands were still pink and clean. A girl in high heels slumped against the wall, breathing heavily, and saw the intent look on her companion’s face before he split into dizzying twins. The developer read the birth of his fortune in those hands; the girl would allege rape, but would not be believed. An eighteenth-birthday party saw Jason helping Chloë with her coat, and claimed their table; the celebrity’s brother saw the leaping fawn on the bottle, and ordered real champagne.
Gail and Chloë were leading the way across the Flesh Gate.
A pallid light was cast by the moon, and a spring dew had fallen. Beyond the Flesh Gate lay the outlines of Derbyshire hills, framed by the sandstone fronts of bakery and boutique, broken by the small round shoulders of the women as they led them aside into cunning lanes. Jason’s shoes beat 2/4 time on the cobblestones. Gail kept up a vaporous whisper, punctuated by Chloë’s jerking laugh. They stopped before the door of Jason and Chloë’s house, where the women embraced.
‘Thank you, guys. Thanks, Gail. I’m sorry I over-reacted, Calvin. And thank you both for making the night special.’
‘You deserved it; it’s wonderful news,’ said Gail.
The gate latch clicked. His voice could be heard in counterpoint to hers as they went down the path to the side door; wheels trundled on gravel as Jason moved a rubbish bin to the front. Gail and Calvin turned. Their shadows fell behind them as they took the Stone Bridge Road.
‘How well did he play?’ asked Gail.
‘You know Jason. He doesn’t play to win. How was Chloë?’
‘There’s a lot they don’t realise about each other. They’re going to have difficult times.’
A white mare snorted, exhaling mist. The moon found a latchkey glinting in Gail’s hand.
‘Are you coming to bed?’
‘I’ll take a turn by the river first.’
Gail went inside and turned on the hall light, her profile narrowing as the door shut behind her. Calvin walked down the riverbank, his shoes and trousers growing heavy with dew. A man had sent his household over the river before wrestling with a stranger till dawn. And Calvin stood obdurate and severe, bracing himself for the struggles before him.