The Hesitant

Picture credit: Ishan @seefromthesky

The hotel bathroom seems as big as his apartment. At one end, before a pair of French doors, a huge roll top bath stands proudly on the tiles looking out over the balcony and a canopy of eucalyptus to the ocean beyond. A pair of fans, high up in the ceiling, squeak and click to different beats. Scott closes off the taps and the plumbing system shudders and knocks. 

Outside, the air is minty cool and the light has faded from day to dusk in the time it’s taken to run a bath.

Scott steps out of his clothes and lays them carefully on the chaise longue. It’s an antique, the wood scuffed and scratched, but the upholstery is new, bold, modern.

Back home, he’s notoriously messy. The wicker basket at the end of his bed spews clothes across the floor of the apartment. His girlfriend, Tomiko, never complains and sometimes when she’s out, he searches for something that’s hers. A T-shirt, her toothbrush, a paperback. They’ve lived together a couple of years, yet she seems to take up no space at all. It had been a joke at first. Her little backpack, everything rolled up, the collected poems of William Carlos Williams. “What about the rest?” Scott had asked, seriously, and Tomiko had just shrugged and smiled and placed her bag next to the bed.

Scott undoes his watch and lays it across the wrist of his shirt. It’s like a version of him has been laid out on the patterned seat and he moves his shoes to the foot of the chaise longue and hangs the legs of his trousers over the end. He stands there, naked, contemplating another man, reclining. One who is careful with his things, who lives a rich life, spends the weekend in hotel suites. Assured, confident, in his element.

He lowers himself into the hot water, the great cloud of bubbles spilling over the edge. He’s resisted the urge to add some cold and sinks into the vast tub, extending his legs out luxuriously.

Scott had spent the first two weeks of the trial in a motel near the courthouse. It was cheap and convenient, and he hadn’t cared. His lawyer convinced him to take a better place for the verdict, confident that they had won. “You’re gonna make a fortune Scott. Start enjoying it now.”

Cherelle drove a Mercedes convertible and wrote all her emails in CAPS. She specialised in plagiarism cases and Scott had Googled her after someone had said that a song on the TV sounded like his. 

“This is in the bag Scott. Melody, chord progression, rhythm. They’ve made a heap of cash out of you. Time we got some of that back, heh?”

Scott isn’t thinking about the money he’ll make from the case, nor the cost of the hotel, his suite on the top floor. He isn’t thinking about Cherelle, nor the soft leather seats in her car, nor the jangle of bracelets as she parks in the garage opposite the courthouse. He’s definitely not thinking about Tomiko, nor the voicemail she left on his phone. The reminder flashes up every time he taps the screen, like she’s sitting there on the edge of their bed, waiting for him to hear what she has to say. He’ll listen in the morning, and give her a call, if there’s time.

 The journalist was a musician herself. Keyboards in a group whose lead singer had gone on to have a hit with another band. She told him how she’d been classically trained, at some fancy school in the mountains, before she’d started drinking, smoking pot. She’s sober now, she said, a stockinged foot curled under her on the green velvet settee in the other room. Scott had never stayed in a suite before and there was something about being in a room like this, with a bed and a woman he hardly knew, that seemed to have got a grip on him. It’s like a record skipping, the same phrase repeated over and over, this woman with her shoes off in a room that’s private, his.

The heat from the bath is in him, and he can feel the blood pumping in his temples. Her name was Ivy, which didn’t seem to fit the woman who asked him questions about his song writing, his inspiration, how hard it was to make money as a musician. She’d done this thing where she jammed her pencil between her top lip and her nose as she turned the page of her notebook. Like she had a wooden moustache, her eyes sparkling, and it is this image that haunts him now. Something masculine, yet alluring.

She’d recorded their interview on her phone and made notes, and still he wasn’t sure what was for the article and what was just a conversation. She seemed so interested in everything and Scott felt exotic for the first time, like his life was no longer mediocre, but fascinating. That the trial and his song were now the end of a long and extraordinary journey, and not just the thing themselves.

They shared a similar taste in music, liked some of the same bands. But it was her life that had seemed incredible. Boarding school, summers in Switzerland, married at twenty, divorced a year later. And now a writer on a successful magazine, plenty of travel, her phone full of numbers, he imagined.

She wanted to know about his parents, and he’d struggled to think of anything to say. He’d last seen them a couple of years ago, just after he started dating Tomiko, before she’d moved in. He’d been excited at the prospect, the long bus ride from the airport across the endless landscapes of his youth. “So much sky,” Tomiko had said, over and over, like it was incredible, and not something he’d run away from, as soon and as fast as he could. But no sooner had they sat down to eat, at the same kitchen table they’d all crowded round when they were a family, he’d felt bored. It was like he was sixteen again, his sister kicking him under the table, and he couldn’t wait to get away. Tomiko had asked his mum about the picture in the hallway, of them all wearing their best clothes, and Scott had yawned uncontrollably, like a cartoon version of himself overcome with tiredness. Tomiko made her eyes go wide which was her way of saying she was embarrassed for him, and for his mum too.

Lying in the bath, he imagines taking Ivy to see them. His dad would want to show her round the place, because Ivy was classy and hot and because Scott’s dad is a bit of a racist. The kind of person who’d often start a conversation with the phrase “I’m not racist but” and then reveal the full extent of his biases, his prejudice, his quiet dislike for anyone who isn’t like him. Scott can only guess what his father makes of Tomiko. 

Ivy would find him exotic too, his father. His stories from the Gulf War and half a lifetime underground, mining for copper and gold. His huge hands, wrecked from hard work and from the odd fist fight, even now, in his fifties.

Scott slips deeper into the water, the bubbles closing over him, entombing him in a shroud of white. He should be thinking about winning the case tomorrow. The little victory for some two-bit musician like him. The money he’ll make to recompense for the hit the other artist had. The song that’s played on TV and on the radio and in the biggest computer game of the year. The millions that will come his way and prove that there is justice and fairness in the world, and that you can come from shit and still be someone. But he’s thinking about Ivy and whatever might have clicked between them.

They’ve arranged to meet for a drink in the bar downstairs and Scott can’t now remember whose idea it was and isn’t sure if this is an extension of the interview or something else. He mentioned Tomiko when they talked and he tries to remember whether this was favourably, with kindness, affection.

Cherelle had told him to be generous when he took to the stand to make the case for his song and how it had influenced the hit. The artist had smiled, genuinely, and Scott mentioned how he was a fan, the respect he had for his work. How we can get influenced by things in our sub-conscious. How anyone could make the same mistake.

Cherelle had nodded at him as he spoke, and he took this to mean that he’d gone far enough. That he should stop now before he overdid it and reduced the strength of his case for damages. Ivy asked him about whether he really meant this or was it just something his lawyer had told him to say. Her questions had an extraordinary precision, like they could split him in two and reach right into his soul.

“I like the guy. Got a lot of his stuff on vinyl,” Scott had said, smiling, trying hard not to play a game whose rules he didn’t understand. Ivy had made him feel special, the centre of something, and then completely out of his depth, all in a heartbeat. And he liked that. That sense that he might be starting to drown and that she was there, that she would rescue him if he went under. It was thrilling, that feeling that he could pass himself over to this woman, a stranger and that she could do whatever she wanted. He liked the feeling of powerlessness, in thrall to a force that was unexpected and made his fingers tingle. She was tiny, tucked into the corner of the couch, her toes wriggling as she asked her questions, and yet she seemed to fill the room, to make sense of this grand hotel, its sweeping spaces, its majesty.

He surfaces through the foam expecting to see her standing there, her arms crossed, the light behind her eyes, or reflected, somehow, from the lights along the beach.

Across the bathroom his clothes sprawl nonchalantly. Like he comes here all the time. Scott asks Siri what the time is, and his phone says it’s seven-fifteen. The street outside is getting busy. A parade of pimped up cars cruising the strip. And a promenade of excitable voices starting to hit the bars that line the coast.

Scott runs the cold and feels the temperature slowly leach away. He pictures cold molecules of water bumping their way up the bath, elbowing past the warmer ones, working their way up to his groin, his chest. And then he wonders whether the cold just cools the warmer ones. That everything becomes the same.

He’d said seven-thirty, a casual suggestion, like it was an imprecise measure of time. But he knows she’ll be there already, sitting at the bar, a waiter sliding a Coke across the counter.

She doesn’t drink and Scott thinks he probably shouldn’t too, but that seems strange to him. The idea that he might meet a woman, even if it is just an interview, and not be able to support himself with something else. Not drinking seems to suggest something naked, exposed. That whatever happens can’t be blamed on the booze or a misunderstanding or on things just getting a little out of his control.

He tries to imagine it, sitting at the bar, their knees almost touching, the electricity in her stockings crackling between them. And all of this clear and precise, untrammelled by booze. Nowhere to hide, no excuses for whatever he might say or do. He’s been faithful to Tomiko since they met. Loyal and attentive and loving, in the best way he can be. But all he can think about now is the miniature bottles of expensive vodka lined up in the minibar and how he’d like to drink them one after another and let himself fall.

He imagines Ivy is a surgeon and that he’s lying before her on an operating table. “There’s nothing to worry about,” she says gently, and Scott feels the prick in his arm and then he’s lost to the anaesthetic and whatever she has planned for him. She seems like the kind of quietly confident person who could do that, or anything, and that he would be happy to let her.

At the end of the trial, during the summing up, Scott had whispered to Cherelle to ask how much money she thought he’d get. She’d scribbled out some numbers, her bangles jangling, and showed him the page. He stared at the number, unsure how he was meant to respond. It was a huge figure, and she wrote underneath it ‘BEFORE COSTS’. Scott nodded and after more jangling Cherelle wrote another figure that was half of the first number followed by a row of question marks.

Scott doesn’t really care about the money, but after the first number he was disappointed with the second. It’s still a huge sum, but knowing that Cherelle and the system would be taking so much affects him.

He wonders how Tomiko will greet his news. She seems to have little interest in money and what it can do. She borrows books, rotates a tiny wardrobe, makes sandwiches for her work as a junior illustrator for a TV production company. She once said that the less she had, the happier she was, and although at the time Scott hadn’t thought much of it, he remembers it now. He imagines a bigger apartment and feels a sadness inside him that he didn’t know was there. Coming home to Tomiko, alone in some vast space. 

Ivy asked him what he planned to do if he won, and he’d said something about being set up for life. He could quit worrying about money and do what he really wanted; become a fulltime singer songwriter. Ivy had asked him if he would always be the guy who made millions from a song that someone else had made famous, and he’d scoffed and made a face. But the question had got under his skin.

He tries to picture himself behind the wheel of a car like Cherelle’s, pulling out of the parking lot, Ivy by his side. He knows that this is what he’s supposed to imagine, a life less ordinary.

He thinks he should feel happy, happier. He stands on the cusp of unimagined riches and yet he struggles to think of anything positive they might bring.

The hotel neon light flickers on, filling the room with a warm pink hue. He’s sure Ivy will be sitting at the bar. To finish up the interview or just to chat or perhaps, although he hasn’t allowed himself to think this until now, because she wants to sleep with him in the suite of the grandest hotel on the strip. Or perhaps she wants more? Something serious? A relationship? Or maybe it’s all about the money?

Scott levers himself out of the water and stands dripping on the tiles. For a moment his body steams in the fresh air from the open doors. He waits until he’s cooled a little before towelling himself dry. His clothes on the chaise longue suggest someone similar, but different. His watch reads seven-thirty.

Out on the street, laughter and someone playing a high note on a trumpet. Lights twinkle from the ships out to sea. In the other room, his ringtone, the opening chords of the song he’d written, the one that will make him rich. The towel is draped across his shoulders, like a boxer at the end of a round. He breathes in; eucalyptus, and cotton and soap.

About the author:

David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. His first novel, The Winter Son, is currently on submission through his agent Robert Caskie. He’s recently been published by STORGY Magazine, the Cardiff Review, Lunate, Bandit and Tiger Shark, and was shortlisted for the 2022 Bristol Prize, the 2020 Fish Short Story Prize, and 2021 Brick Lane Short Story Prize. He lives in Brixton in South London. (Photo credit: Patricia Niven.)

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About David Micklem

David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. He’s recently been published by The London Magazine, Litro, STORGY Magazine, Scratch Books, the Cardiff Review, Lunate, Bandit and Tiger Shark. He’s been shortlisted for the 2023 and 2021 Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prizes, the 2023 London Independent Short Story Prize, the 2022 Bristol Prize, and the 2020 Fish Short Story Prize. He lives in Brixton in south London.

David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. He’s recently been published by The London Magazine, Litro, STORGY Magazine, Scratch Books, the Cardiff Review, Lunate, Bandit and Tiger Shark. He’s been shortlisted for the 2023 and 2021 Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prizes, the 2023 London Independent Short Story Prize, the 2022 Bristol Prize, and the 2020 Fish Short Story Prize. He lives in Brixton in south London.

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