EXCERPT – Freeman

A small group of kitchen workers in ubiquitous white tunics stumbled out of one of the doors farther up the line. It was the back entrance to a rather pretentious Mediterranean restaurant that had opened a few months ago. I’d eaten there occasionally. The food was good, but I’d found the service poor. A gust of hot air and noise followed the workers out and the door slammed shut behind them. They were obviously in the middle of clearing up for the night, just taking a break. Mostly young men, a couple of women with them. A mixture of shapes, sizes, and races. One of the men was laughing very loudly—thin, striking, with dark skin and impressive dreadlocks caught up in a tie at the back of his neck—and when he produced a packet of cigarettes, there was plenty of jostling and more laughter as they handed it around.

I watched carefully as the young man at the tail end of the line caught the packet, tipping it up on end to jog out the last cigarette. Someone called for a light, asking who the fuck had the lighter. The man with the packet in his hand started digging into the pocket of his jeans—dark-coloured, low-slung jeans—and produced a cheap throwaway lighter. And then he turned, looking down the service area toward me. I didn’t think I’d done anything to attract his attention but his eyes caught mine with no hesitation.

“Shit,” he said softly. I heard the word very clearly over the grumbling and joking of the rest of the group. His eyes narrowed and he tilted his head slightly to one side, watching me watching him, his dark hair curling against his pale, slim neck. One of the young women called to him, her accent strongly Eastern European, and he turned back briefly to throw the lighter to her. Then he started to walk toward me. The ground was damp from heavy rain earlier in the evening, and the uneven paving glinted under his oversize trainers.

Even in the shapeless tunic he moved with an unusual, sensual grace. It was a swagger that showed his youth and his arrogance but also his uncertainty. I stood and I watched until he was only a foot or so away. I could smell the cooking odours on his clothes, see a spattered stain on the left side of his tunic from a tomato-based sauce.

“You,” he said. It wasn’t a question or a statement, just a noise he made because he probably couldn’t think of anything else. His voice was low but clear in the still, humid air.

I nodded at him and pulled my coat around me more tightly. Behind me the neon lights of a small discount electrical shop flickered sporadically through a split in its shutters. The words were back to front and only half visible.

“The other night…” he began. His eyes opened wider, flashes of light reflecting in his pupils. He bit his lower lip under small white teeth. Two of them on one side were slightly crossed. “You know.”

I wasn’t bothered about answering, but he seemed to expect something. “I know. Sure.”

“I mean… thanks for putting me up. I’m still on a mate’s floor, haven’t got a place of my own yet. You said it was okay.”

“It was,” I said. “Fine.”

He frowned. “But I had an early shift,” he hurried on. He gazed straight at me, not nervous, more wary. That suited me, for my look probably gave the same message. “Had to get away quickly in the morning. I took a couple slices of toast and a cuppa, that’s all.”

“And a shower,” I said calmly.

I saw him flush, the poor, distorted light rendering it a grey shadow on his pale cheeks. His face was long and angular, classically so, his lips full. I was fascinated again by his beauty. I wanted to believe it was less fragile than it looked. “That a problem?” he growled, rather belligerently.

“No,” I said. That night at the club he’d been so tired that when I stood up to leave, he still leant in against me. He came back with me to my flat with very little complaint, though I made sure he knew it was always his choice. Then he slipped into a much deeper sleep on my couch before he’d even taken his trainers off. I eased them off his feet, draped a blanket over him, and left him to rest.

A guest on my couch, in my flat. It’d been a long while.

In the early morning light, I’d lain in bed listening to him fumbling about in the kitchen, then finding the bathroom and trying to get the shower to work. I heard the first sharp hiss of the water running and what sounded like a sigh of pleasure from him as he stepped underneath. I lay there, still unmoving, as I heard him slopping his way back out onto the lino, dragging towels from the cupboard and getting dressed again.

The click of the front door closing had been at its quietest: he’d been careful in leaving. When I finally got out of bed for my own breakfast, I found that he’d folded my spare blanket onto the arm of the couch and carried his dirty plate and mug back out to the kitchen counter.

He was looking up at me now, a pale figure in a bleak alleyway, yet his presence was vivid against the mute doors and windows. His expression was bolder because he guessed I hadn’t come to chase him up for something. Maybe that’s what he was used to. “What the hell are you doing here anyway?” His eyes ran swiftly from my collar and necktie to my expensive shoes. He frowned slightly.

I didn’t have to answer him, of course, but I did. “Business,” I said. “A business meeting.”

He raised an eyebrow and smiled. His whole face abruptly changed, the lines around his mouth lifting his look from sulky to stunning. “Yeah, right. At one a.m. That’s the sort of business that George —” He paused and his expression darkened again. He ran a nervous hand up through his hair, letting it fall back carelessly over his forehead.

“Yes,” I agreed. “The sort of business that George does. But I’m not him. I have a client who works his admin at nights. I’m helping him replenish his delivery fleet. This is a convenient time for us to meet up.”

“Back here?”

I gestured toward a couple of the generic white vans parked next to us, nestling together behind an optician’s office and a local building society branch. They were the same make, same model, same jaunty logo painted on the side. “Helps me to see the product.”

He nodded slowly, still staring at me, maybe trying to see more in my explanation than I offered. “Pays well, does it? Your business?” Look at your clothes, his expression said. Your flat, your car. I’d seen him sizing it all up when I’d taken him home that night, despite his tiredness. Many people think they can measure me like that. I don’t disabuse them.

I smiled back at him slowly. “Well enough. For a business that’s legal, that is.”

He tilted his head to one side again and his smile returned, matching mine. There was none of the wide, stretched disorientation in his face like before. He looked alert, the shine of intelligence and humour in his eyes, and it was a far more pleasant sight. “Better than washing dishes for the price of a packet of smokes, right?”

“Right,” I replied. There was composure between us, a surprising thing to me. It seemed that neither of us worried about the words that weren’t being said, neither of us intruded on the other. I hadn’t felt that ease for a long time. “That’s where you work?”

He nodded again. “Just for the moment. Until George finds me something better.”

I nodded too, though my face felt like it tightened up. In the dark, I doubted he saw the change. A car door slammed somewhere in the distance, but it wasn’t my client arriving. A siren wailed at the end of the high street, a familiar occurrence. I decided I wasn’t going to wait much longer. The man could call me in the morning and reschedule if he wanted to make something of it.

“He said nothing about it, you know,” the young man said abruptly. “George, that is. Said nothing about me sleeping over at your place that night.” His gaze was calculating, trying to provoke me.

“Why should he?”

He bit at his lip again. Someone had said something to him, I guessed. Who are you? he was trying to ask but didn’t quite have the nerve.

I shrugged gently, still smiling. “George and I have history. That a problem?” I deliberately turned his words back onto him and saw the flicker of recognition in eyes that were far sharper than before.

He didn’t answer me, maybe knowing not to go there. He asked his own question instead. “So what’s your name?” The other kitchen workers at the back of the restaurant were calling to him; their shared break was over.

“Freeman,” I said, knowing that someone at George’s would have told him already, wondering what else they may have told him. “What’s yours?”

Someone shouted more loudly, calling for Kid. I watched his mouth tighten, pursed against sudden anger. “Fucking nickname. I’m the new boy, one of the youngest. That’s what they call me.”

“That’s not a name,” I said, without accusation.

He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “Don’t have a name. You know? Not one I want to use, anyway.”

“Kit,” I said. “That’s a name.”

“Huh?” He frowned at me, confused.

“A name,” I repeated. “Easy to remember. Better than an animal’s name.”

He did the head-tilting again. “That your name or something?” The words were aggressive, but his tone was softened in the night’s damp, steamy air. I looked steadily back at him.

“No,” I said. “It’s just a suggestion for you. A working title.”

His feet shifted on the wet paving, a trail of standing rain water rippling out from the movement. “Whatever,” he said finally, rather listlessly. “If you like.” He frowned at me again, a puzzled half smile on his face. He started to move sideways, backward, half a step at a time. I buttoned up my coat and glanced at the way back out onto the street.

When he reached out and put his hand on my arm, I was surprised. “Left something behind,” he said. “At your place.” For the first time, he didn’t meet my eyes. “I can come around tomorrow and pick it up. Lunchtime session finishes around four.”

I listened to the glib little lie and wondered about it. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll be home then.”

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