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What caused it? That’s what you’re getting at. Apart from the obvious factors, that is. I’ve already confessed that I’d been drinking the night before. But that had nothing to do with it. I would say it started because the flat I shared with Briony was empty, except for a bed and the TV. Personally, I preferred it that way, but she said she wanted this place to be different – a real home this time with soft furnishings, picture frames, kitchen utensils. So, the pull of the New Year sales couldn’t be denied: interest free credit, eighty percent off last year’s prices, the opportunity to uniquely personalize our home. Everything she wanted.
The store was a hangar sized room. Two-hundred different suites set out in simulations of living rooms, each one accessorized with shelves, tables and lamps, which were also available at great prices. On the coffee table of each fake room were price lists, brochures and empty paper cups left from complimentary hot beverages being given to customers.
I was thirsty when we arrived but couldn’t see the source of the free drinks. I’d showered and eaten breakfast, but the previous night’s party was clinging to me. It was almost all people from the office so Briony had wanted to go more than I had. Neil had been there, of course.
She steered me through the shop, to an area with furniture for the more discerning customer. The smell of leather and expensive fabrics hung in the air. Here, the assistants that buzzed around the punters wore suits with name badges instead of shirts with sweat patches.
I admit that by that point I was finding it difficult to maintain mental focus. There was something going on at the office; rumours about relocations and redundancies were kicking around. I hadn’t said anything to her. There was no point; she’d pretty much guaranteed herself a promotion. Even if Neil hadn’t been her team leader she’d have still made certain she was okay. She was always good at that sort of thing. I used to think I was, but, let me tell you, she set a new standard in interpersonal communication in the workplace.
I tried to turn her towards the other side of the store, told her, ‘We should look at the cheaper ones. These are too big for the flat anyway.’
Without a pause, she said, ‘You’re so cheap. Anyway, it’s a false economy.’ That was a phrase she’d inherited from her father. Then, ‘They’ll be completely fucked in a month.’ That was one she’d taken from her mother. ‘Here.’ She gave me one of those long looks through her false eyelashes as she handed me a leaflet – Our generous four years interest free credit makes everything affordable (subject to status).
While she browsed, I wandered across the shop floor. If I’d had any enthusiasm when we arrived it was gone by then. Sitting down in one of the cheap suites I looked around hopefully for a shop assistant bearing coffee.
The chair was surprisingly comfortable and I zoned out. I was half asleep, so I didn’t hear the woman speaking at first. By the time I realised she was talking to me I’d missed what she was saying. She seemed happy enough to carry on regardless:
‘…course I’d need it in a darker colour than this. My Billy would make a right mess of this. He’s a right little terror sometimes. He’s a good boy, don’t get me wrong, but he can be a little tearaway. Where is he? He’d better not have run off…’
She sat up on the sofa, craning her neck to look around, but made no effort to stand. I looked at her lank hair and bad complexion. I could tell straight away there was something not right about her. She looked hung-over, unwashed. Nothing odd about that at this time of year but she seemed too enthusiastic. Twitchy, almost.
‘The fabric’s nice though, isn’t it? Soft, but it feels hard wearing, doesn’t it? You can feel the quality, can’t you? And it feels well made.’
Looking at the price list I could see that we were sitting on the cheapest suite in the store. She put her feet up on a footrest and leaned back, letting out an exaggerated sigh.
‘I could sit here all day. It’s so nice and comfortable.’ She read a leaflet for Super Shield Upholstery Protector, before she briefly turned it to show me. ‘I should ask about this with my Billy tearing around the place spilling stuff everywhere.’
Everybody knows the optional extras are a rip off so I was beginning to wonder if she was a plant – some sort of undercover sales person – mingling with the customers to convince them of the furniture’s quality, get them talking about how reasonable the finance packages are.
While I considered the possibility, I assessed her clothes and hair. She’d made an embarrassing lack of effort with her appearance. Watching her, I found myself straightening my own clothes, checking that my shirt was properly ironed and running my fingers across my hair to make sure it was properly styled.
When I looked back to her, she’d become distracted again.
‘Billy! I don’t know where he’s got to. I’ve got to keep an eye on him all the time. He’s probably off talking to someone.’
I was tired and losing interest in the woman. To be honest, I was wondering why nobody was bringing me one of the free coffees everyone else seemed to be drinking, and thinking about it was making my mouth feel drier. I began to think that the passing assistants didn’t consider me a serious customer and were deliberately overlooking me. I’ve had it before because I look so young for my age. It’s partly down to good genes but it’s mostly because I take care of myself. Then something else occurred to me. Unlikely as it was, I realised with disgust that they might think I was with the woman.
I looked down the aisle, searching for Briony. For a moment I was absorbed by the spectacle of a family of salad-dodgers trying to squeeze themselves into the soft deep folds of a huge sofa. When I turned back I realised the woman was staring at me expectantly, head cocked to one side. Meeting her eyes for the first time, I could see she had a slight squint – almost unnoticeable, but it was there nonetheless. I stared back hoping she’d repeat whatever it was she’d asked.
‘Christmas, I said. Did you have a good Christmas?’
I nodded. ‘You?’
‘I had a whole tin of chocolates all to myself. It was great. I ate the whole lot. All myself. Didn’t have to share them with nobody, it was lovely.’
There was a long pause, like she was expecting me to respond, so I said, ‘That’s nice.’ I remember she smiled and nodded slightly as though she was confirming I’d responded correctly, then she started looking around again, whether for an assistant or her missing child I couldn’t tell.
I turned away too and for a moment and found myself thinking about Briony’s ever-grinning team leader, until her voice somewhere behind me, cut into my thoughts,
‘Babe, come and see these bookshelves.’
‘There in a minute, Angel. I’m just trying this sofa out.’
‘Hurry up. I’m over here when you’re done.’
The woman, semi reclining on the sofa, said, ‘Is that your wife. She’s lovely.’ The woman’s approval meant less than nothing to me, but I still felt that little glow of pride. You know what I mean. Even so, I was spectacularly bored by that time, and despite the repulsion I felt for the woman, I began to wonder what it would be like to kiss her. Not that I wanted to, you’ve got to believe me. She was a mess. There was no way I would have done anything, but I still imagined pushing her back into the cheap colour-matched cushions, kissing her hard on her slack lips, and while her voice droned on, I started to imagine what noises she would make if I pressed my fingers between her legs and acquiescence turned to arousal. Like I said; I was bored.
I pulled myself to my feet and headed off to where I’d last seen Briony. Then I made a long slow circuit of the showroom. I wasn’t in a hurry to catch up with her. I sat in dozens of chairs, stretch out sofas, read price lists and collected brochures.
I don’t know why I was doing it, the whole shopping thing, that is. Ever since I found Briony’s diary the whole thing about living together seemed…temporary. I wasn’t even shocked when I read about what she’d done with Neil after the office party. What really shook me was that she was stupid enough to write it down. That and the level of detail in which she’d been inspired to record what they’d done. All of it.
I looked up at an advertising banner on the wall: We travel the world to bring our customers the very best in contemporary design, the best craftsmanship and the most up to date styles. Did I want to waste all that quality on somebody so fucking thick? At least if I spent the money on a new car I could drive it away when it all went to shit.
I ended up back in the cheap seats. The woman was still there. There were more paper cups on the coffee table now. Other people had come and gone. Serious customers, who had been given complimentary coffee.
She smiled as I approached, ‘Ain’t you made your mind up yet?
I shook my head. ‘You?’
‘I like this one. It’s nicer than the others.’
‘You don’t fancy one of the leather suites then?’ I nodded my head towards the pricey end of the shop where Briony was encamped with a sales rep.
‘No. I think I’d like this one.’
As if to prove it, she leaned over the back of the sofa toward the aisle where a salesman was passing. ‘Could I get your help with something?’
He doesn’t look at her. ‘Sorry, I’m with a customer at the moment.’
I found myself saying, ‘Another customer, you mean.’ I don’t know why I felt like defending her, maybe it was just the oily little salesman that annoyed me. Maybe the lack of a free coffee had finally gotten to me.
He paused for a moment, thinking, before repeating, ‘I’m with a customer at the moment.’
He crossed the showroom, to a woman in a trouser suit, who spoke a little too loudly, unembarrassed by the volume of her voice, ‘Yah, we liked that one too. Not sure about the colour though.’
The drab little woman, snubbed by the salesman started looking around her again, but with a sudden urgency as though she was suddenly panicking about something she’d forgotten. Then she started going on about her fucking kid again. ‘Billy! I’ll kill that boy when I find him. He’s always running off, getting into trouble. Always. He is…’
She carried on talking but I didn’t really hear anything she said for a while. I began to wonder where her kid, Billy, was and what the little shit was up to, but then in a moment of horror, I saw Briony looking a little too thoughtfully at a suite that exuded comfort and homeliness. It was vast and soft with large cushions hung over its sides. I was angry for a moment, I admit. We’d already discussed styles. We’d talked about how clean lines are more relevant to our lives, and how a neat design better expressed who we were as people. Her increasingly homely taste in furniture worried me.
I could see her examining the baggy hulk of the sofa, trailing her perfectly manicured hands across its fabric. Under the pale glare of the strip lights I could see the glint of her nail gloss perfectly complimenting, as ever, the colour of her lipstick. Above her was a picture of a beaming young man. Our expert sales staff will do everything possible to make sure you’re delighted with your purchase. The picture bore an unfortunate resemblance to Neil; neat, polished, with a well-rehearsed and winning smile.
Briony’s conversation with the sales rep was reaching its inevitable conclusion. I got up, patting down my pockets to find my wallet. As I left her, the woman shuffled around in the seat as though she meant to stand up and say goodbye, or wave me off, but she remained where she was.
‘I better go and look for Billy before he gets into trouble. Hope you find a nice sofa. Happy New Year.’
As the doors slid open and the damp air of the car park hit me, I glanced back. The woman had moved to a different suite. She was sitting in an armchair, talking to an unsmiling assistant. As he pointed out the chair’s features, I could see her lips move. I recognized the word ‘Billy’, as she craned her neck to search quickly around the store.
I don’t remember a lot about the accident itself. After it happened I could hear Briony screaming, ‘What were you thinking?’
I was thinking about the woman and wondering what had happened to her fucking brat. I was recalling the expression on her face, how she seemed oddly content, looking at the suite around her with the pride of someone who has just furnished her first home.
And I remember thinking that if I’d been close enough to stare into those slightly squinting eyes, I would have seen, reflected in her pupils, the image of a different room than the one around us. I was certain that the picture reflected there would have been a neat living room, newly decorated, family pictures framed on the walls, a child’s toys spread across the floor, Christmas tree in the corner and a Labrador asleep in front of the fireplace.