The Picture from Cairo by Curtis Garner

Jack is not listening. He holds a tea towel in one hand and a potato peeler in the other, smiling occasionally as his husband recounts his day.

The tree in front of the house allows staves of light through the kitchen window. Dusky orange. Christmassy. A woman soldiers past with a pushchair, her breath turning to clouds around her head. There are a bunch of yellow tulips on the pushchair’s folded hood.
         
Are they tulips? They can’t be daffodils. She crosses the road and walks into Greenwich Park. Rich – Richard to everyone else – is leaning against the worktop. His suit is boxy and gives him enormous shoulders. The kitchen light bounces off the top of his head. He is holding a Waitrose bag, but it contains no shopping. He takes the same bag to and from work every day, so the colour has faded, and the plastic is creased.

Jack thinks about the cupboard that is overflowing with carrier bags.
Rich has also brought home a canvas wrapped in plastic. It depicts seven mopeds in a city square. They are lined up together, all different colours, but the last one has toppled over. He has propped it up next to the kitchen table.

Did you listen to any of that? Rich asks.

He shakes his head and smiles. Of course. Would you put this in the compost bin? Jack hands him a punnet of potato skins, wet and powdery with starch.

After thirty-two years, Jack has mastered the art of appearing engaged when Rich tells him stories. He hears the rise and fall of his intonations. Changes in volume. Laughter. The way he hisses his s’s. But words? Not a clue.

The metal chime on the back of the door makes a shimmery sound when Rich opens it and goes into the garden.

Jack takes the cholesterol butter and a plate of steaks from the fridge and puts them on the worktop, then stands in front of the sink where the pan of peeled potatoes is. He slices them backwards towards his thumb. The halves plop back into the water.

He puts the pan on the hob and turns on the gas.

Rich comes back in, saying something about his Marketing Director which makes him laugh. The cold wafts in with him.

‘I’m making steaks for dinner,’ says Jack.

‘That is a treat,’ says Rich, taking a Tupperware dish from the top of the fridge and removing his lighter, papers and tobacco pouch.

Jack searches his face for irony. There is none.

Rich has one cigarette after work every Friday, like Gwyneth Paltrow.  

Some of the Spanish words have rubbed off the pouch. Jack knows embolio means stroke.

Rich pulls out a chunk of tobacco and improvises a filter tip by ripping a strip of cardboard from his Rizla packet. He reopens the back door and leans against the door frame, cupping his roll-up between thumb and forefinger. His hands are young and delicate, and he has short, square fingernails.

Jack can smell the cold.

He sprays low-calorie olive oil onto the two steaks and adds salt, pepper and garlic powder.

What time is the guy coming tomorrow? he says, massaging the seasoning into the meat.

Twelve thirty.

Aren’t you going to take that? Jack nods his head to the framed picture on the wall. Two servants standing before a pharaoh on papyrus. A backdrop of hieroglyphics. Rich bought it on their holiday in Cairo.

Jack hates it. The lurid gold frame. The way it goes with nothing.

You don’t want it? says Rich, his smile cheeky but stoic. He stubs his roll-up out on the floor and puts it in the bin.

That makes the bin stink, says Jack.

Bins are supposed to stink. Rich has no hair, but he shakes his head as if he has shoulder-length curls. He takes a box of Weetos from the cupboard, tilts back his head and drops a small handful of them into his mouth. A few stick to his palm so he licks them off.

The potatoes are boiling.

Jack takes two knives and two forks from the cutlery drawer and hands them to Rich.

He sets them out, with two plates, on the kitchen table.

I got you some beers, says Jack. They’re in the fridge.

Thanks. Do you want one?

I’m having coffee. Jack puts a Tassimo pod into the machine. Cortado. He adds water.

Rich sits at the kitchen table. Beside him is a box labelled ‘Records’.

Jack looks at Rich’s feet that he has tucked beneath his chair. The nuances of his face. The shape of his ears.

Rich takes a little tube of Aesop hand cream from his jacket pocket and squeezes a pearl into his palm. It makes the room smell like lavender.

When the potatoes are cooked, Jack pours them into a colander that he has put in the sink. A mushroom cloud of steam climbs up the window and turns it opaque. He puts the potatoes back in the pan and returns it to the hob.

Can you do these for me?

Rich goes to the dishwasher and takes out the masher.

Jack turns from the sink and steps on Rich’s foot. He stumbles a little and grabs his shoulder.

When he removes his hand, Rich stands there. Just for a couple of seconds. Jack can see the blood vessels in the whites of his eyes.

Rich adds too much butter to the potatoes, turns his elbow vertical and mashes them. He is avid-eyed when completing a task.

Jack heats the griddle pan and sprays it with olive oil. He adds the meat and it sizzles. Rich likes his steak medium. Jack likes his well-done. No blood.

They sit down and eat their last meal.

Do you like it? says Jack.

Rich is taking a gulp of his beer. After he swallows, he smiles, showing his front tooth that is slightly twisted. He puts his hand over his mouth when he realises.

It’s lovely, he says.  

The house creaks. It always creaks when the sun goes down. Talking, Rich calls it.

~~~

Curtis Garner is a queer writer living in Hackney. He has been working in publishing since 2017, after graduating with a First in Creative Writing and English Literature from the University of Greenwich. He is also about to finish his MA in Creative Writing, for which he has been studying part-time on the distance learning programme at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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