Celeste flinches as a plump king prawn drops onto her plate. The others laugh. They had, after all, been mocking her lack of chopstick dexterity only minutes earlier. The four of them stand around the black marble kitchen island. The embedded glitter sparkles within the worktop, as if a thousand stars were trapped inside.
Roger and Joan do not have the same magnetic proximity as the other couple. Clearly, nor have they made their meticulous efforts with make-up and grooming. As he has been doing all evening, Jason leans towards Celeste and places his hand on the small of her back. She shrugs it away and it is only then that they follow her gaze across the kitchen into the ostentatious living room.
Beyond the roaring fire, engulfing the dark realistic but faux logs, Nathaniel’s huge bulk looms in the corner. Beside the giant glass tank, where luminous fish zip about with a frantic urgency, seeming to be rallying around dealing with some disaster. The shadow he casts towers across the cream carpet, somehow larger and darker than it should be. The abrupt silence echoes around the huge room.
Nathaniel stumbles into a stool as he saunters towards them, into the kitchen. His mouth, in a vague imitation of a smile, thinly conceals gritted teeth. Even with his dishevelled hair, unruly stubble and crumpled hoodie, his muscular physique penetrates through his clothes. Hints of intricate tattooed patterns peek from his rolled-up sleeves.
“You know you’re not allowed within twenty metres of me,” Celeste says to him, her tone neutral, contrasting her facial expression.
Roger places his glass on the island, sending a tiny wave of red wine cascading over the edge, as he steps in front of Joan.
“How did you get in here, Nathaniel?”
“Is that any way to greet your brother-in-law? It’s been, what, almost a year?”
“You need to leave.”
“Don’t be silly.” Nathaniel drops the paper-thin smile. His red and puffy eyes, glistening with menace, penetrate Roger. “I just got here. And I am the life and soul of the party. Right Celeste?”
Celeste chews her sleeve and looks down at the floor. Nathaniel strides over to her, his steps betrayed by a slight wobble. He ducks down, his face inches from hers.
She grimaces. “You reek of whisky.”
Nathaniel pouts. “Just a new aftershave, babe.”
Jason clears his throat, brushes a clump of hair off his pallid face and holds out a quivering hand. “Hello Nathaniel, I’m Jason.”
Nathaniel turns towards Jason and savours him. Thoroughly, like a juicy steak he had just been served and is ready to devour. He stares at the outstretched hand for a few moments, then shakes it belligerently, making Jason yelp. “Nice, Celeste. Quite the catch.” He tugs Jason’s bicep, sending him stumbling forward. “And ripped too. What do you bench?”
“Erm, well I don’t really do weights. Just cardio.”
“Of course you don’t. Let me guess, vegan right?”
“No. Though I do try to –”
“Don’t answer him, Jason” Celeste says, still looking down.
“I see she’s got your balls in a vice already, Jase,” Nathaniel says, in a manner that could be mistaken for friendly. “After how long? Only a month?”
Jason steps backwards and rubs his arm.
Nathaniel leans towards him. “Or was it longer?”
“I didn’t cheat on you, if that’s what you’re insinuating,” Celeste says quietly. “You did enough of that for both of us.”
Nathaniel shrugs. “You got me there.”
Roger gulps and flicks a swift glance towards the clock above the Rangemaster oven. “How did you get in here?”
“Tricks of the old trade. I’m sure Celeste told you about my nefarious past.”
Roger’s frown deepens.
“Oh c’mon, Roger. You knew I used to be a criminal. You couldn’t hide your contempt since the day we met. And her too,” Jason says, nodding towards Joan, who inhales sharply.
“Actually, I never told them.” Celeste looks up. “Must have been your personality.”
Nathaniel chuckles, in a manner that could be mistaken for genuine. “But I gave it all up. And for what? Nothing I did ever made you happy.”
Celeste closes her eyes and sighs. “Hiding your habits are not the same as giving them up.”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” snarls Nathaniel. “I was looking after it for Jimmy.”
“And would you have gone to prison for Jimmy too?”
Nathaniel muses, tapping his teeth with a fingernail. He walks around the large black kitchen island, with its thousand trapped stars, over to the block of knives. He pulls one out and suddenly spins around, holding it with both hands across his face, in a ninja stance. Joan shudders. Roger and Jason look at each other.
Nathaniel grins, strolls over to a heap of food and slices off a large chunk of crispy aromatic duck. He throws the knife on to the island. The clatter echoes across the kitchen. He chews on the duck with his mouth open, slurping loudly. Joan bites her lip.
“You’d never tried this dish when we first met Celeste, remember?” Nathaniel says. “You love it now, though.” He emits a long burp. “You’ve changed a lot since we first met, haven’t you? From temp to manager. But I could never change. Not in your eyes.”
“Did you sign the divorce papers?” Celeste asks.
Jason’s stare bounces a few times between the knife and Nathaniel.
Nathaniel’s glare fixes on him. “I wouldn’t try it, cardio-boy.” His words are very quiet, but seem to expand.
“Did you sign them, Nathaniel?”
Nathaniel points at the duck with a greasy finger. “Funny isn’t it, things you can learn to love and learn to stop loving? Although I am glad I could contribute in some way to your…” He walks over to Jason and smiles at him. “…delightfully charming little soiree,” he says, as he wipes his hands on Jason’s crisp salmon shirt. Jason winces, though does not move.
Nathaniel grabs a couple of prawn crackers and then strolls into the large living room. The wobble is still there, hidden between his steps. The roaring fire, engulfing the faux dark logs, crackles, and throws orange glints across his face. He peers into it for a while, searching for something. “I have to say Roger, you have a lovely pad. Truly. Didn’t realise you had taste.”
“Thank you. But I really think it’s time you left.”
“Look at those chandeliers. Beautiful. Real crystal?”
“Celeste has a restraining order against you. I don’t want to call the police.”
“THEN DON’T!” Nathaniel screams. Red bursts across his face, like an erupting volcano. Prawn cracker crumbs cascade from his clenched fists on to the beige carpet. Joan flinches and wrings her hands.
Outside, winds bellow. Inside, the fire roars and crackles. The luminous fish zip about, tending to their disaster, oblivious to the one occurring outside the tank. A window rattles, sharing their urgency.
But nobody moves.
Nathaniel’s face breaks into another grin. A realistic, but faux one. He walks over to a huge oak grandfather clock, in a manner that seems almost casual. “You don’t see these nowadays,” he says, tapping the side of it. “Imagine stumbling across this house in my burglar days.” He nods to himself. He leans back and scratches the side of his head. “By the way, is that your Ford Mustang outside, Jason?”
Jason nods minutely. His eye twitches.
“Nice ride. GTI?”
“Turbo,” Jason mumbles.
“Nice. Very distinguished.” Nathaniel chews his lips. “Easily recognisable. Shame if it was ever to get damaged.”
“Are you –,”Joan’s voice is raspy. She clears her throat. “Are you serious? Are you really threatening a criminal barrister?”
“Wow! Didn’t realise you can actually speak, love,” Nathaniel smirks at her. He takes off his crumpled hoodie and drops it on the beige carpet, revealing intricate tattoos, meandering across his naked shaved chest. He cracks the knuckles on one hand, and then the other. The crunching sounds bounce off the wall. He stretches his arms out and rotates his shoulders. His huge muscles throb, their contours exemplified, by shifting shadows from the fire. He struts back towards them, like a peacock.
“Barrister, eh Celeste? Very nice. You’re covering the whole gambit of criminality. Sleeping with my enemy.” He leers at her, his eyes glimmering with flecks of orange.
“What chance does a lowly ex-con mechanic have, with your new-found high standards?”
Jason looks around at the others, but they do not look back. His eye twitches frenetically. He swallows and steps forward. “Look, you’ve had your fun. Now, please leave us alone. Celeste doesn’t want you here.”
“You’ve been screwing my wife for a month and you’ve got it all figured out, don’t you?” Nathaniel seethes. A huge vein snakes across his neck. A meaty hand shoots up and grabs Jason’s neck. His other balls into a fist, and gradually rises up, undulating from side to side, like a python about to strike. “Do you know how easy it would be for me to…?”
“Daddy?” The squeaky voice from around the corner is quiet, but it pierces through the air, like an arrow. The winds bellow again, reinvigorated. The window rattles, with an increased urgency. A young girl with dishevelled blonde hair, in pyjamas, shuffles into the living room, rubbing her eyes.
Nathaniel seems to melt. His stance. His face. His stare. The hand around Jason’s throat. Everything drops. “Princess?” His voice waivers. He dashes over to her and crouches down. “I thought you were at Grandma’s.”
“You stink, Daddy.”
“It’s a new aftershave, Princess.”
“No, it’s alcohol.”
Nathaniel brushes the side of her face with the back of his hand. “Don’t believe what your mother tells you. I’m not a bad man.” The syllables fluctuate between gruffness and softness.
“But mummy said that you’re not a bad man. You just need to grow up.”
Nathaniel’s eyes glaze over. He does not move.
A feeling not unlike being electrocuted flashes through Nathaniel. Shattered by the way she is looking at him. With her head tilted like that.
Nathaniel recalls the three of them walking out of Kings Cross Station, the previous summer. His Princess was skipping along, holding his hand, with a big red balloon from her birthday party in the other hand. He can picture the scene, visually, but it feels odd. Foreign, like someone else’s memory.
He felt a tug on his hand as his Princess walked over to a tramp. He remembers now the way she stared at the man. With compassion? No, with more than that, with raw pity. With her head tilted like that. Nathaniel battled his reflex to just keep walking. He examined the man himself. He tried, really tried, to feel the same way. But he did not. He could not.
He had said no when his Princess asked to give the man some money. She had offered to give back one of her presents in exchange. He said no again. She said he could even choose which present.
Nathaniel had intended to say no one more time. He formed the thought. He opened his mouth. But his throat held onto the word. He remembers that now, how it felt. With all those words ready to fly, but with his own throat tightening, refusing to let them through.
Nathaniel lowers his head. His shoulders shudder. After a long while, he says — voice fragile, “How about I take you to bed and read you a story?”
“Jason already read me a story.”
“But I’ll read you ‘James and the Giant Peach’. Your favourite.”
“That’s not my favourite anymore, Daddy.”
Nathaniel places her tiny hand in his and strokes her palm with a finger. He whispers, barely audibly: “Funny isn’t it, things you can learn to love.” His voice fades until it has disappear.
“When will you grow up, Daddy?”
He lets go of her hand, and stands up slowly, his gargantuan bulk amplified by his petite, dainty daughter. He walks towards the front door, with a hand shielding his face. The wobble is no longer there.
Roger runs over to pick up the hoodie, but the door has already closed.
Joan takes the little girl back to bed. Jason shakes his head and mutters. He refills everybody’s glasses. He puts his hand on the small of Celeste’s back. She flinches minutely, walks over to the roaring fire and peers into it for while, searching for something. She tosses the wine around in her glass, but does not drink from it.
Celeste gasps as she hears the letterbox clatter. She puts her glass down in front of the fish tank, and edges towards the front door, peering round the corner. Her eyebrows rise and she sighs. She sees the divorce papers sprawled across the floor. As she picks them up, she looks over at the mat that they had landed on. The mat is frayed and the word is faded, but it is still legible. ‘Welcome.’
Dr Das is 40, lives in London and is a Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, working in prisons and criminal courts rehabilitating mentally ill offenders. He is admittedly relatively new to authoring fiction, but is fortunate to have already had some competition success and a few other stories accepted for publication. He also dabbles in stand-up comedy.